There is no good design without a good client. And Sonja Bata was a great client: A driving force behind the Bata shoe business and a trained architect, she spent half a century commissioning fine products, buildings and places.
But Bata also understood the value of design to society at large – and Canada should learn from her discerning example as a businessperson and a citizen.
Bata, who died Tuesday in Toronto at the age of 91, "had an uncompromising vision for design, and would find a way to bring out the best," says Heather Dubbeldam, an architect who worked on a series of projects with Bata in her final decade.
Sonja Wettstein, born in 1926 in Zurich, Switzerland, studied architecture at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in that city. Her studies were interrupted at age 19 by the arrival in her life of Czech-born Thomas Bata; the 31-year-old heir to the Bata shoe business courted and won her over quickly. The new Mrs. Bata soon moved to join him in small-town Ontario, and went on play an important role in the global growth and operations of the company, which grew into an early multinational giant.
The enterprise spanned design, production and retailing and carried a strong social dimension as well. Thomas's father, Tomas Bata, was committed to an egalitarian form of capitalism; starting with his Czech hometown of Zlin, the company created a series of company towns that mixed Fordist production, Garden City urbanism and rigorous, idealistic modern architecture.
The Batas brought that model in 1939 to Eastern Ontario, with the town of Batawa – the name was a play on "Bata" and "Ottawa." Sonja and Thomas Bata commissioned a house by John B. Parkin Associates, the architects who were Canada's leading proponents of modernism. In 1964, the Bata company moved its head office to Toronto, and the Parkin office designed their headquarters in the planned community of Don Mills. Bata International Centre was a highly visible symbol of the company's intellectual and visual standards.
Those carried through the operations of the business. Sonja Bata collaborated for more than four decades with the architect Raymond Moriyama; the factories, offices and housing they helped create for Bata Shoes's far-flung operations tried to respond to the local climate and culture, aiming for technical efficiency and happy employees. That was good business. Moriyama and his office also designed the Bata Shoe Museum (1995) in Toronto, to house the privately funded and run footwear museum that was Sonja Bata's labour of love. It was and remains a beautiful place, a sensitive and interesting contribution to that city.
But she was also a strong advocate for industrial design and architecture. From 1964 to 1976, Bata was a key member of the National Design Council of Canada. Its mission: to encourage the government and industry to employ good design, and to pursue the development and adoption of a national design policy and strategy for Canada. This, Bata believed, would be a social good and a generator of economic development. "A good quality man-made environment should not be the privilege of a few people, but the right of every Canadian," she told the Vancouver Sun in 1975. "Design excellence should be a valid national objective."
She was right: Good design makes our collective and private lives better. There was a time when Canadian products and architecture were globally recognized – the era of Expo 67, of Arthur Erickson, of Scarborough College, of the Centennial projects that provided new containers and new icons for our culture.
Where is that ambition now? Why, as governments spend billions of dollars on buildings and furniture and the reconstruction of our cities and parks, is there not a true commitment to excellence?
Sonja Bata retained that ambition. Her final project was the redevelopment of Batawa; she purchased the original shoe factory after it closed in 1999, and hired Quadrangle and Dubbeldam's firm to design a mixture of commerce and housing that will be complete this year. It was one step toward her goal of a 21st-century satellite city, a place that embodies high standards and a vision turned ever forward.