In 1967, when Barry Sampson enrolled as an undergraduate student at the Faculty of Architecture, Urban and Regional Planning, and Landscape Architecture (as it was then known) he couldn't have imagined that the school would be a near-constant presence in his life for the next five decades.
In 2018, Sampson retired from his post as a professor at the Daniels Faculty, but his time at One Spadina isn't over. On Thursday, October 24, he'll deliver this year's George Baird Lecture, during which he'll explore a series of questions related to the work of Baird Sampson Neuert Architects, where he has been a partner since 1981. The lecture is free to attend and open to the public, but online registration is required for admission. Tickets are available here.
Sampson's professional career began around the time he earned his Bachelor of Architecture in 1972. That's when he and classmates Bruce Kuwabara, John van Nostrand, and Joost Bakker approached one of their professors, George Baird, with an offer.
"These four people came to me and said they wanted to join my office, which was at that point a one-person office," Baird, who is now a professor emeritus at the Daniels Faculty, recalled recently. "I said, well, I'm flattered, but I don't have the volume of work to support a staff, let alone a staff of four. And then they said, 'Well, we understand that, and we don't expect to get paid.' Which came as an even bigger shock to me."
The young Sampson had left an impression on Baird. "Barry was talented, he was hardworking, and he was very socially engaged," Baird says. All four of the young architects soon joined Baird's firm and began drumming up business, drawing paycheques when there was money to be had.
Kuwabara, van Nostrand, and Bakker eventually drifted away and found success elsewhere. Sampson himself left for a short period of time to live and study in Paris. But when he returned to Canada he rejoined Baird's firm. In 1981, he became a partner. For the next decade — prior to the addition of a third partner, Jon Neuert — the business was known as Baird Sampson Architects.
Sampson's work has always been characterized by technical mastery and an abiding concern for environmental performance. Baird Sampson's design for Cloud Gardens, an urban parkette near Bay and Adelaide, completed in 1993, earned rave reviews for its planted terraces, artificial waterfall, and tropical greenhouse — all wedged into one of the densest parts of downtown Toronto.
Sampson himself traces the environmentally conscious tendency in his work to a slightly later commission: the Niagara Parks Butterfly Conservatory, completed in 1996. The structure seamlessly incorporates an 11,000-square-foot central conservatory where plants, butterflies, and visitors can freely intermingle. "We had to deal with the biology of critters," Sampson says. "We had to both understand their biology and provide environments that were conducive not only to their survival, but also their performance as butterflies. That made us dive much deeper into the interrelationship of environmental systems and architectural systems than would be normal for an architectural practice. It started us on the track to what I could call 'bio-climatic design': buildings that are responsive to climate and also to the biology of inhabitants."
Under Sampson's influence, the firm's commitment to energy-conscious design grew stronger over time. Thomas L. Wells Public School, completed in 2005, incorporates passive heating and cooling systems and durable, high-quality materials to minimize the building's environmental footprint. The project earned a LEED Silver certification.
Another building that benefitted from Sampson's touch is the one he most recently taught inside: the Daniels Faculty's new home at One Spadina Crescent, completed in 2017. As the dean's special advisor, Sampson was a key point of contact between the building's designers, its builders, and university staff. Along with Dean Richard Sommer, Sampson advocated for the preexisting 19th-century building's former coal pit — which was originally supposed to be remediated, filled in, and sealed off — to be retrofitted into a usable space for the faculty. That space now houses the Daniels Faculty's Architecture and Design Gallery, which will have its grand opening on November 7.
Substantial though Sampson's contribution to Toronto's built form may be, he has another legacy: the mark he left on generations of architecture students, who benefitted from his extraordinary technical expertise. In 1999, he developed the faculty's comprehensive building studio program, which is considered the most technically demanding of the graduate-level studios. He continued teaching the studio until 2015. "As an educator, he's very systematic, methodical, and patient," Baird says.
Exterior and interior of the McEwen Graduate Study and Research Building at York University's Schulich School of Business, designed by Baird Sampson Neuert Architects. Photographs by Tom Arban.
Sampson will continue at the Daniels Faculty as a professor emeritus, and he remains an active partner at Baird Sampson Neuert Architects, where he recently completed a major commission: the McEwen Graduate Study and Research Building at York University's Schulich School of Business. The building bears all his hallmarks: it's a bold but disciplined design that manages to beguile the senses with bright, open spaces while remaining ruthlessly energy efficient. "When we're out there, people will stop us, and they will just, without prompt, talk about how much they enjoy the building," Sampson says. "It makes us feel good as architects to have people spontaneously bring that sort of thing up."
Although the future of his architectural practice is bright, Sampson admits that life outside the university has required adjustment. "I miss talking to students," he says. "I really enjoy their engaged attitudes towards the world."
The Daniels Faculty is collecting donations to support a public commemoration of Sampson's time as an educator. Anyone interested in contributing can do so online.