A life in architecture honoured

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Eberhard Zeidler to receive lifetime achievement honour at Real Estate Excellence Awards gala


Canada came within a hair's breadth of not having such landmarks as the Toronto Eaton Centre, Ontario Place and Queen's Quay Terminal on the city's waterfront, McMaster University Health Sciences Centre in Hamilton, Place Montreal Trust in Montreal and Canada Place in Vancouver.

Nor could Canada have called one of its own the driving force behind the architecture firms that have designed hundreds of often award-winning buildings over the past half century. It was a stroke of luck that brought Eberhard Zeidler to this country.

In an interview, Mr. Zeidler said he was all set to go to Lima -- persuaded by a well-connected aunt living in the Peruvian capital -- two years after graduating in architecture from the Universitat Fridericiana, Karlsruhe Technische Hochschule, in Karlsruhe in his native Germany. Before he left, he quite accidentally heard a visiting McGill University professor speak about a pressing need for architects in Canada.

He switched destinations, arriving in Toronto in 1951, amazed at the deserted downtown streets as he emerged on a Sunday from Union Station. But he quickly found his bearings in Peterborough, Ont., where he joined the only architectural practice serving a population of about 60,000. (In a similar-sized German city at the time there would have probably been 100 practising architects, he noted.) It was the genesis of Zeidler Partnership Architects (ZPA) today.

Tomorrow evening, Mr. Zeidler will be honoured with a lifetime achievement award at the fourth annual Real Estate Excellence Awards. The gala dinner event, organized by the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties (NAIOP), Greater Toronto Area chapter, is expected to attract nearly 700 people in the industry.

Philip Mostowich, chairman of the 2004 committee, and executive vice-president of Brookfield Properties Corp. of Toronto, says the award recognizes contributions to the development of the real estate industry in Toronto. "Mr. Zeidler has been a major force in terms of his impact on building design, development and growth of the city of Toronto," he says.

Stuart H. B. Smith, who was at the helm of Shipp Corp. and more recently Oxford Properties Group, will receive the 2004 REX Award for community service. Tony Arnoldi, vice-president of ProjetCorp Realty Inc. of Toronto, is to be the recipient of a new Director's Award for his work on behalf of NAIOP.

Awards for the year's best industrial development, office development, industrial lease, office lease and investment deal will be given out at the event, of which The Globe and Mail is one of the sponsors.

Mr. Mostowich expects the event, which includes an auction, to raise $50,000 to $75,000 toward a new facility for Interval House in Toronto, Canada's longest-running shelter for abused women and children.

ZPA has designed projects across North America, Europe and Asia. In Canada it is best known for several iconic developments -- notably, in the mixed-use retail and office genre, which includes the Toronto Eaton Centre in the city's downtown. Other projects in Toronto include the Ontario Cancer Institute/Princess Margaret Hospital, National Trade Centre, Ford Centre for the Performing Arts, CIBC Commerce Court renewal, Ontario Place and the Sir Daniel Wilson residence at the University of Toronto.

John Sullivan, senior vice-president of office development for Cadillac Fairview Corp. of Toronto, described Mr. Zeidler as "one of the pre-eminent architects of Canada. His design of the Toronto Eaton Centre, for example, is timeless. It looks as good today as it did 30 years ago when it was built, and that's a real testament to the quality of his work."

ZPA is back on the last remaining piece of that same city block after all these years, with its design of a 600,000-square-foot school for Ryerson University's Faculty of Business, parking garage and hotel, with Queen's Quay Architects International.

Mr. Zeidler has achieved much during his professional lifetime. ZPA is one of the largest architectural practices in Canada, with about 200 staff in offices from West Palm Beach, Fla., to Calgary, Victoria, London, Berlin and Beijing.

His firm's work has been chronicled in more than 400 international professional publications and, on a personal level, Mr. Ziedler's reflections on the state of architecture have been included in several texts. Two books he wrote have been translated into English, German, French and Russian. The professional awards and memberships are too numerous to list.

A weighty coffee table book on his architectural oeuvre is hard to miss in his Queen Street West office in downtown Toronto -- tucked among his eclectic retail neighbours.

A family photograph of the Zeidlers and their children in his office, taken years ago, show his wife, an interior designer, and daughters, also in interior design, who convert old Toronto buildings to low-rent artists' studios and make documentary films. Their son has pursued a military career.

Mr. Zeidler, now 79, has cut back on a punishing travel pace and is delegating more of the work as he grooms younger partners to eventually take over. Quadruple bypass heart surgery and hearing loss have slowed him down a bit physically, but nothing has diminished his joy of life, his good humour, his strong personal presence and his unfailing courtesy.

In his words

Eberhard Zeidler of Zeidler Partnership Architects in his Toronto office, beside pictures of the Trump Tower, left, and Casino Niagara. His firm's other projects include the Torre Mayor office tower in Mexico City, the BNI City tower in Jakarta, the Ritz-Carlton in Philadelphia, the Europa Congress in Suhl, Germany, and the Raymond F. Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in West Palm Beach, Fla.

On urban development: "Unfortunately, there is no control [in Toronto], no development czar as there is in Chicago, for example, over how condominiums are allowed to grow and what will happen to the waterfront. There is too much political engagement and the public is not involved. Vancouver's peer review process has the last word over the design of a building, with good results."

On architectural design: "One can't say automatically that spending more money produces good design, which is a very personal reaction anyhow. On each building you struggle to get the best solution and work it through to its conclusion, in a reasonable way."

On retirement: "I admired Philip Johnson [U.S. architect who never stopped working and died recently at 98] and he made me feel I shouldn't retire. I love what I'm doing and hope to pass the work on to my partners."