Memory of George Byrd, Canadian architect
George Beard (Andre Benneteau)
My first encounter with George Beard was during the final revision of my master’s thesis in December 2005 at McGill University’s School of Architecture. My project to redesign the Ste-Famille village center on the island of Île d’Orléans in Quebec was inspired by Hannah Arendt’s concept of “space of appearance.” I was seeking to avoid caricatured tropes of the historic village in favor of a more abstract but meaningful form of the public sphere. While Baird, then dean of the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Toronto, was a regular guest at McGill University, his presence at the jury that day was motivated by his long engagement with Arendt and the concept of public space. Although the hour-long review went by somewhat in a blur, I remember Bird’s comments clearly, just as I remember most of our conversations since. He had visited L’Ile d’Orléans on a bike tour in Quebec decades earlier, so he knew so intimately the look and spirit of a place that I could only glimpse it through old photos. Disturbed by any sense of architecture as an embodiment of ethnic identity or “authentic” culture, he called instead for careful thought, tolerance, and pluralism.
Baird, who died on October 17 at the age of 84, studied architecture at the University of Toronto and University College London. Byrd then taught at the University of Toronto and Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design and founded the office that later became Byrd Sampson Neuert Architects. Byrd’s teaching and practice have helped foster several generations of Canada’s leading architects, from Bruce Kuwabara (KPMB Architects) to Nima Javidi (JA Architecture Studio). Among his many contributions to Toronto was his advisory role for the mixed-income St. Lawrence neighbourhood, which was built to replace a declining industrial area. Thanks to Bird, today it is carefully integrated into the surrounding urban fabric. It is centered around a tree-lined linear park created in place of disused railway lines. This vibrant space has many uses and users, including a schoolyard. As Canadian architecture critic Alex Bozicovich explained in his obituary for Byrd, the park “is the space of the district’s appearance, a place of personal and political encounters.”
Other major works include several highly influential studies of Toronto’s urban form: com. onbuildingdowntown (1974), Analysis of the built model (1975), and Vacant land in toronto (1978). In alliance with a reform-minded city council and a younger generation of architects and planners, Byrd challenged prevailing modernist orthodoxy and helped develop a more contextual and paradigmatic approach to urban design. As such, he belongs to a generation of leaders in Canadian architecture, including CCA founder Phyllis Lambert and Toronto Mayors John Crombie and David Sewell, who strove for a closer association with the city as a living artifact imbued with historical memory. This desire for dialogue with the world can be seen in evidence in Byrd’s entry in the 1980 Edmonton City Hall competition, which was excluded in order to preserve the former city hall as part of a new ensemble.
Having first touched on Arendt’s philosophy in Meaning in architecture (Volume co-edited with Charles Jencks) In 1969, Bird deepened his involvement in… Appearance space (1995) and Public space (1999). While other theorists such as Kenneth Frampton have focused on Arendt’s distinction between (biologically necessary) action and (constructive) action, it is the third element in her triad that caught Bird’s attention. Arendt’s concept of action, of words and deeds, is about the freedom to start over and initiate the unexpected and revolutionary. This can only happen in public, where the actor is surrounded by other distinguished individuals. Whereas the political “space of appearance” in which events occurred, think of the ancient Greek concept of Police Or Roman forum –When she began to act and speak, what mattered to Bird was that Arendt understood it as concrete and material. As Hans Terds recounts in an essay on Bird’s association with Arendt, written for Roberto Damiani The Architect and the Public: On George Beard’s Contribution to ArchitectureByrd’s public space needs multiplicity, mobility, and history; It is a “rough space” where one is vulnerable.
in Public space (2011), Bird reconciles Arendt’s idea of active public space with Walter Benjamin’s claim that architecture was viewed in a way of distraction by constructing a continuum between the two, which he illustrates using a selection of street photographs. Photos by Robert Frank and Nikki S. Lee et al “encompass a wide range of social practices that embody the publicity of our time.” Between Henri Cartier-Bresson’s everyday customs and traditions and Stuart Franklin’s photograph of “Tank Man” in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, we move from everyday human behaviors to moments in which human life and the future of the world are clearly marked – Arendt clearly distinguishes between the two seeming to be at stake.
My last conversation with Bird took place this summer in the company of his wife Elizabeth (a noted culinary journalist) at the Canadian Center for Architecture in Montreal. I was then preparing to bring a group of Daniels College students to a summer course in Berlin. George shared his memories of that city, and his thoughts on why he preferred the Hans Scharon Orchestra to Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. While both shared clear official sympathies, he distinguished them on superficial grounds. Disney’s turning and sitting motion seemed to divide spectators carelessly, resulting in “experimental disappointment,” as he described it in his essay “On the Phenomenology of Spatial Sequences.” On the other hand, the carefully designed sense of spatial interconnectedness between the lobbies, mezzanines and terraces in Sharon’s masterpiece, enhances the “Berlin Hall’s ability to perform as a social condenser”. While the use of the term “social condenser” may be a bit of a stretch given its ideological associations, Beard’s analysis of the Philharmonic underscores his belief that one of architecture’s greatest powers lies in coordinating its public appearance.
Bird often noted that one of the joys of the architectural profession was having knowledgeable colleagues “to help one explore the architectural features” of places around the world, as he wrote in the afterword to Damiani’s collection of writings. Byrd himself was the ultimate guide to Toronto, and his annual graduate seminar at Daniels College taught students to appreciate the city’s urban form. He was happy to bring visitors to the Temple of Charon, a three-tiered, square-plan building of near-perfect proportions. Built by the Children of Peace, a Quaker sect, between 1825 and 1831, the temple is located north of the city within a precinct of buildings. The delicate wooden construction demonstrates the contingency of the efforts needed to embody social ideals in the material world. As a human artwork imbued with a higher meaning, it provides an apt summary of Bird’s engagement with the world.
Peter Seeley is an architectural historian and assistant professor at the University of Toronto.