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Michael Hough, seen in 1985, perches on a Toronto rooftop overlooking a jumble of sheds, fences, wires, laundry lines and vines, which he said he found ‘absolutely stunning.’ (Edward Regan/The Globe and Mail)
Michael Hough, seen in 1985, perches on a Toronto rooftop overlooking a jumble of sheds, fences, wires, laundry lines and vines, which he said he found ‘absolutely stunning.’ (Edward Regan/The Globe and Mail)


Michael Hough brought ecology to the cityscape Add to ...

They landed in Toronto in 1959, and found a city and a country bursting with potential. By 1962, Mr. Hough was working on the Toronto suburb of Don Mills, a groundbreaking example of modernist city planning, with a new generation of modernist architects.

In 1965, he founded the University of Toronto’s Landscape Architecture program, and held a job in the university’s campus planning office. His boss asked him to draw up plans for new suburban campuses; Mr. Hough talked himself into a comprehensive job on the new Scarborough College. That building’s architecture – by Australian émigré John Andrews, who also designed the CN Tower – was praised by critics around the world.

At Scarborough, set in the wooded Rouge Valley, “Michael immediately realized you couldn’t build on the valley land,” Ms. Hough says. “They came up with the idea of this toothpaste-tube-like building along the valley wall.” The results were beautiful and innovative and kept buildings away from the low-lying, flood-prone areas.

Mr. Hough began teaching at York University’s new Faculty of Environmental Studies in the 1960s, a role and an environment that he loved. He continued to teach, and speak publicly on ecological issues, even as his design firm grew in size, working on individual landscapes as well as urban and ecological planning.

“He never stopped working,” Ms. Hough says. “He was driven, obsessed, but I suppose all of these are good when you want to change the world.”

His passions came down to his family, too. “He taught me all about ecology, natural history, evolution and Darwinism,” says Tim Hough. “From an early age I was hooked.”

He was a classic “absent-minded professor,” Tim adds, and his family, “TimTum,” Adrian (Fluffkin) and Bridget (Tweetles”) shared his deep connection with nature.

Their cottage, in the bush north of Huntsville, Ont., was “Michael’s laboratory for experiments in ecological living,” says Ms. Hough, who became a medical illustrator.

Mr. Hough’s environmentalism was not always popular, as his longtime colleague Carolyn Woodland recalled at his memorial. “Being truly green in those days was a constant struggle,” she said. “His unflinching perseverance, and sometimes lack of diplomacy, earned the office the nickname Huff and Puff; sometimes it was used affectionately – and sometimes not.”

Hard-headed, articulate and charming, he retained the ability to inspire his staff, students and clients, Simon Miles says. “I’ve never met someone with such bright, twinkling eyes, and because he was always talking such sense, and with such passion, it was a pleasure to listen.”

Mr. Miles, a policy and international development consultant who knew Mr. Hough for nearly 50 years, says there was a solid through-line in all Mr. Hough’s work. “He was a big-picture thinker. He loved his fundamental principles of landscape design.”

And he was always concerned with putting them to practical effect. For instance, Mr. Miles cites one idea from Mr. Hough’s book Out of Place: to work with economies of scale. He did so with his landscape design at Ontario Place, on which he collaborated with the architect Eberhard Zeidler and won an award from the Canadian Society of Architects in 1975.

“They needed a means to create more land and to break the waves,” Mr. Miles recalls, “so they got some old tankers, filled them in and sunk them.”

Others of Mr. Hough’s projects were quietly influential – like the courtyard at the University of Toronto’s Earth Sciences Building, a remarkable square of boreal forest he seeded with native species and allowed to blossom into a tiny, perfect expression of nature’s will.

Mr. Hough was an influential figure at the University of Toronto, briefly, and then for decades at York. Mr. Miles attributes this to his ability to communicate: “He made his ideas simple to take on board.”

In later years, Mr. Hough continued to be influential within his profession, but also made an important impact on his city: His firm designed a master plan in the 1990s for the site now known as the Don Valley Brick Works, and he was a force behind the citizens’ group Task Force to Bring Back the Don. He contributed to the Royal Commission on the Future of Toronto’s Waterfront, which wound up in 1992, and had deep and lasting effects: The reclamation of the Don Valley, and the nearby Toronto Port Lands, are now a crucial part of the city’s multibillion-dollar waterfront regeneration plan.

And despite many awards, it was the growth of his ideas and his work that pleased him most. “He loved teaching and influencing young people, but he was never satisfied with the status quo,” Ms. Hough says. “It was always about looking forward.”

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