In Memoriam: George Baird10-22-2023
On Wednesday 17 October, Canadian architect George Baird died, aged 84. Arendt scholars may know his name from the proceedings of the famous 1972 Toronto conference on the work of Hannah Arendt, organized by Melvin Hill. Arendt herself was present, on her own request not as a ‘guest of honor, but as one of the participants. At this conference, Baird was the interlocutor of architectural historian Kenneth Frampton, whose text 'The Status of Man and the Status of His Objects', which he presented, is included in the book produced after the conference: Hannah Arendt. The Recovery of the Public World (1979). According to the transcription of discussions at the conference – which mostly consist of critical questions posed to Arendt –, Baird intervened in the debate with two questions. First, he asks Arendt about her fascination with Rosa Luxemburg, and second to put forward the housing question, as an issue in which the individual, social, and political intertwine.
Baird is together with Frampton the two first scholars from the field of architecture to understand the value of Arendt’s writings for the field of architecture. But where Frampton mainly focuses on Arendt’s distinction between labor and work, more or less neglecting the notion of action, criticizing the economical and processual turn in architecture, Baird is, in his writings, much more focused on the political dimension of design as well as the issue of public space. Both Frampton and Baird got interested in the writings of Arendt via their participation in what they called ‘the London Circle’, a group of London based architects, critics, and scholars meeting one another on a regular basis, discussing the status of architecture and society. The architect Sam Stevens suggested Frampton and Baird to read The Human Condition, as they, respectively moved to Princeton to teach architectural history, and back to Toronto, to start an architectural practice and to teach at the University of Toronto.
For both, Arendt has been a stepping stone throughout their career. Baird, as he writes in his 1995 book The Space of Appearance was struck by the attention Arendt has for the material, physical things of the world. In his particular style of writing, he phrases it as follows: ‘None of Arendt’s philosophical predecessors nor any of her contemporaries has matched the depth of her passionate engagement with the “things of the world.” It is this engagement, in my view, that makes her particular twentieth-century philosophy so distinctive, so personally attractive, and so especially pertinent to architecture.” (21) As the title of this book already suggests, Baird strongly includes Arendt’s notion of action in his reflection on architecture, examining the public aspects of architecture, as well as the developments of public space. In a recent article he wrote on my invitation, he argued that it made him also an early critic of gated communities that were exponentially established throughout Northern America at the time. ‘Such communities’, he writes, ‘truncate the life experience of individuals who were excluded from them, at the same time that it also similarly impacted less-than-fully mobile internal member of such communities, including teenagers and the elderly.’ In response to these developments, he directed to the strong figure of the urban street, which was, in his eye a ‘robust and resilient urban form’, which he also had experienced in his practice in Toronto. The street had catered for aged public life – and though Modern Architecture had rejected the street, Baird putted it back on the agenda, for instance in his 1974 Urban plan for the St. Lawrence Neighborhood in Toronto.
Besides his thriving practice, in which he drew up urban plans but also designed university buildings and landscaped parks, he has always continued to teach. Largely in Toronto, for some years at Harvard, and then back in Toronto - for a while also as dean of the Architecture Faculty. Moreover, he enjoyed mingling in the public debate on architecture. despite the rather pessimistic debate in the 1990s and early 2000s about the state the potentials of public space, he has always remained optimistic. This is perhaps expressed most strongly in his book simply called Public Space (2011) in which he uses street photography as a starting point of the potentialities of public life. He begins this book by bridging Arendt's notion of action with Walter Benjamin's notion of distraction. As Benjamin argues, we perceive our environment only inactively, in a distracted way. This raises the question how Arendt’s action actually can attract and evoke response. How does ‘seeing and being seen, hearing and being heard’ work in practice, if everyone present is present in distracted manner? How do the two relate to each other? When do we take action, when we are so passive in public space. The street photo’s help him to bridge between the active and the distracted mind – ending his book even with some suggestions for the the design of public spaces.
In recent years, I have come to know George Baird as a sharp, generous thinker and an amiable person. A true educator, with a heart for the world. I visited him once in Toronto, as he invited me to lecture at the Toronto University. He took me on a tour of Toronto’s highlights of architecture, to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Dominion Center, the City Hall, the underground corridors, the harbor area, beautiful parks, and even to the countryside. We had wonderful talks, inspiring moments examining Arendt’s writings, and what they still mean for architecture. In reverse, I invited him for a conference and later to be an opponent during the defense of my dissertation, for which he came all the way to the Netherlands. He generously praised and criticized my work.
Baird remained all of his life an unorthodox and optimistic thinker. This is precisely what attracted him to Arendt: the non-dogmatic, the hopeful, and the engagement with the world.