Eberhard Zeidler, architect behind many of Canada’s best-known buildings, passes away at 95


Eberhard Zeidler, architect behind many of Canada’s best-known buildings, passes away at 95

Eberhard Zeidler (Courtesy Zeidler Architecture)

Eberhard Heinrich “Eb” Zeidler, the prolific German-Canadian architect behind pioneering projects such as Eaton Centre and Ontario Place in Toronto and the sail-capped Canada Place in Vancouverdied in his sleep in his Toronto home on January 7. He was 95 and would have turned 96 on January 11.

According to the architecture firm he founded, Zeidler Architecture, Zeidler designed more than 1,000 buildings around the world, from mixed-use commercial developments to residences to medical centers.

Based in Toronto, the privately held company has offices in five other cities: Calgary, Vancouver, Victoria, Beijing, and Berlin. The author of four books, including a 1,231-page autobiography entitled, Buildings Cities Life, Zeidler retired from daily practice in 2009 and held the title Partner Emeritus. 

“It is a fitting tribute to his great talent that some of our most iconic buildings in Toronto were designed by Eb Zeidler. Think Ontario Place. Think Eaton Centre,” Toronto Mayor John Tory tweeted. “These were but two of his many celebrated projects here and elsewhere. They are representative of a legacy that will live on. We are much the better for his creativity and commitment to excellent design.”

“We’re deeply saddened to hear about the passing of architect Eb Zeidler, the force behind many of our city’s landmarks,” said the Toronto Society of Architects in a statement. “Thank you, Eb, for your passion to make a better city.”

Zeidler was born in Braunsdorf, Germany, on January 11, 1926, and educated in Germany. He joined the German navy as a teenager during the closing days of World War II and Hitler’s regime. After the war, he began studying architecture in the East German city of Weimar, where Walter Gropius started the famed Bauhaus school that closed under pressure from the Nazi regime in 1933, and where a few of the Bauhaus professors were still living and trying to continue teaching. He eventually escaped to West Germany to finish his degree at a school in Karlsruhe.

According to accounts from family members and others, Zeidler emigrated to Canada in 1951 at age 25 and began working for the architectural firm of Blackwell and Craig in Petersborough. He started as a drafter and moved up rapidly. Zeidler Architecture was founded in 1954.

Though Zeidler worked on many different types of buildings, one of his specialties was in the design of hospitals and medical centers. He believed strongly that good design can aid in the healing process, and he incorporated soaring atriums and other spaces that offered abundant natural light and access to nature, to make hospitals feel less drab and institutional. His philosophy is spelled out in another book he wrote, Healing the Hospital, and many of his design ideas have been incorporated in hospitals designed by others.

Examples of Zeidler’s health care design work include the Hospital for Sick Children and the Princess Margaret Hospital (now the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre) in Toronto; the Walter C. Mackenzie Health Sciences Centre in Edmonton, and the McMaster University Health Sciences Centre in Hamilton, his first major medical facility.

Completed in 1972, McMaster was a breakthrough project that drew widespread attention because it had one of the first designs in which the mechanical areas of a hospital were isolated from the patient areas—placed in “interstitial spaces” between the patient floors. The design gave administrators a greater ability to keep up with advances in technology and upgrade the building without taking patient beds offline for long periods or otherwise disturbing patients or staff.

A glass and stone medical center
The McMaster University Medical Centre (Nhl4hamilton/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)

“In healthcare, he transformed the notion of the machine hospital into a healing environment, believing that the hospital itself serves the emotional needs of its patients, staff and visitors,” Zeidler Architecture said on its website. “He took labyrinth corridors and transformed them into an open system with natural light, green spaces and settings for communal gathering.”

Zeidler also became known for creating buildings that revitalized urban settings with a mix of “people-centric” uses that made them popular gathering places.

By the 1970s and 1980s, developers and public officials sought him out to work on projects that could help revitalize cities in Canada and beyond, in much the way Benjamin Thompson and Jon Jerde were in demand.

His design for Eaton Centre (now the CF Toronto Eaton Centre) was conceived not as an isolated mall but an “interior street” where a privately managed retail and office center converged with and became part of the public realm.

He admired and became close friends with the author and urbanist Jane Jacobs after she moved to Canada so her son wouldn’t be drafted to serve in America’s war in Vietnam, and she supported his design for Eaton Centre. Reading Jacobs’ book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, was “like reading the New Testament for the first time,” Zeidler once said.

Other revitalization projects include: the redevelopment of Queen’s Quay Terminal, the Toronto Centre for the Arts (now the Meridian Arts Centre) and the redesign of the historic Gladstone Hotel in Toronto; the 55-story Torre Mayor (“Major Tower”) in Mexico City, Mexico; Cinedom, a movie theater and commercial building in Cologne, Germany; BNI City in Jakarta, Indonesia, and the Raymond F. Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in West Palm Beach, Florida.

In downtown Baltimore, the Rouse Company commissioned Zeidler to design a mixed-use complex that contained a hotel, a five-level retail “gallery” and a 28-story office building that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. Located at Pratt and Calvert streets, across from Thompson’s Harborplace pavilions, it’s now part of the portfolio of Brookfield Properties, which recently closed the retail portion and hasn’t said what will go in its place.

Baltimore is a laboratory of Zeidler projects, with two other major buildings that he designed: the Columbus Center on Inner Harbor Pier 5, an education- and research-oriented facility that’s part of the University of Maryland system, and the 10-story Homer Gudelsky Building for the University of Maryland Medical Center at Lombard and Greene streets, featuring one of Zeidler’s signature atriums.

“Eb believed that architecture was a stage for life,” according to his firm’s website. “He understood that buildings and cities are foremost places for people; therefore life should be expressed within them.”

Zeidler approached his work with a strong technical ability combined with humanist sensibilities, the firm said. “His work balanced practical form while recognizing the emotional and aspirational needs of the people that occupied their spaces.”

Zeidler reveled in the complexity of buildings and in making various pieces fit with each other and with the larger setting.

“Architecture isn’t just one thing, it’s everything,” he once told The Globe and Mail architecture critic Alex Bozikovic. “Where I am sitting here, how people arrive here, how you feel when you come into the building – all these things matter.”

For his work, Zeidler received numerous awards and accolades, including Officer of the Order of Canada; Order of Ontario; four honorary doctorates, and the Gold Medal from Royal Architectural Institute of Canada. For many years he was an adjunct professor of architecture at the University of Toronto, and the library there is named in his honor.

Zeidler’s survivors include his wife, Jane; his children Margie, Robert, Kate and Christina; five grandchildren, one brother, and a niece.

He was devoted to his wife and family, according to a notice the family placed in The Globe and Mail.

“If he had a superpower, it was his wife of 65 years, Jane,” family members said. “He recognized and valued her contribution with everything he did. A wag nicknamed them Eb and Flow.”

The house that Zeidler designed on Beaumont Road in Toronto was the center of family life, relatives said.

It “was perched halfway down a ravine, mixing urban living with the natural beauty of Toronto’s ravines. It was a playground for the children and all their friends. Eb delighted in that and would watch with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. As a father he was always supportive of his children…They all share his passion for city building and architecture in their own unique ways.”

Zeidler and his wife “loved art in all its forms” and were frequently seen at local exhibits and shows, family members said.

“They were nicknamed the ‘octogenarian hipsters’ because they were a fixture at every contemporary art event.”

Zeidler also liked being out in nature, the family added.

“He delighted in the physical beauty of Ontario and enjoyed being outdoors every day, skiing (in his signature Lederhosen) at Osler Bluff in Collingwood, sailing and swimming great distances at Stony Lake, in the Kawarthas, and jogging daily in the Rosedale Ravine (with his trusty Dictaphone in hand). Eb was a generous, big-hearted force of nature who brought his passion for architecture, urbanism and the respect for human experience to all his endeavors.”

The family is planning to celebrate Zeidler’s life “when it is safe to gather again,” in reference to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the meantime, relatives said, “do something creative for your city or your community and think of Eb.”