Birdsell Bill OAA Today we’re buzzing with Bill Birdsell, the President of the Ontario Association of Architects (OAA). Great building design is something everyone can appreciate: a thoughtful layout or an eye-catching facade can change the way you feel about a space and even your city.

As the province continues to build and grow, its architects are advancing their reputation world-wide. The OAA honoured some of the top local talent during a recent gala ceremony, celebrating projects in Toronto, Los Angeles, Tel-Aviv, Waterloo, Sequin Township, Vancouver and other international cities.

Birdsell, who joined the OAA Council in 2009, is a strong believer in architects acting as agents of change. We caught up with him to chat about his initial inspiration for building, the public’s engagement with architecture and a past run-in with Frank Gehry on an ice rink.


BuzzBuzzHome: How did you get your start in architecture?

Bill Birdsell: My aunt, uncle, and grandmother took me to the “Man and his World” exhibit at Expo 67 when I was about 8 years old. I remember exploring all those buildings myself and experiencing the whole place: the great dome by Buckminster Fuller when it had the tallest, longest escalator in the world and all these sturgeon fish swimming around in the pond; the Soviet Union pavilion with hundreds of models of big factories; and of course the Canadian pavilions designed by Roderick Robbie and Arthur Erickson.

It just ignited my imagination and I always wanted to build as a result. It didn’t make me a very good student in university, though, because I was so impatient to get started on my career.

BBH: Was it always something you wanted to do?

BB: Absolutely. It was kind of unusual, growing up in Paris, Ontario. I didn’t know anyone who even knew an architect, so I went through the technical side while in high school, not quite knowing the proper steps to take. In ‘76, I went for a tour of the University of Waterloo and I came away from it realizing that I needed a portfolio. I had never taken art before, so I went to the Grade 13 art teacher and had to convince her to let me join the class. What I really wanted was a self-directed program, because I had to make this portfolio. I ended up painting and building a series of geometric sculptures, and amazingly enough I got into the university program.

BBH: Did Paris, Ontario have much of an effect on your work?

BB: It did because of the Erie Canal connecting Buffalo to New York City, built about 170 years ago. Paris has this interesting tradition of cobblestone architecture created by a mason who worked on that canal before moving to Paris. It’s wonderful.

BBH: There are many awards honouring buildings, and there’s been an explosion of blogs and websites that document architecture in cities. How has the public’s relationship to architecture changed over the years?

BB: I think what happened is architecture has moved from just being a facade on the street to being really involved in placemaking. Architects have made that transition and are engaging with the public, stimulating communities with ideas about the built environment. As people are becoming more aware of the impact architecture has on the spaces they live, work, and socialize in, architects are taking a leading role in the growing conversation around city building. With increased public involvement, architects are even better equipped to serve the communities we are building and designing for.

BBH: Are there particular architecture trends you’d like to see more of in Ontario?

BB: Yes, I want to see the continuation of placemaking, of that excitement in the city. I’d also like to see a greater movement towards sustainability. Architects bring a forward-thinking perspective to the built environment, looking at society’s needs now and taking into account how those needs will change in the future. I want to see that perspective resonate throughout the building industry at large, to ensure our buildings are sustainable in the long term.

BBH: For the OAA Awards, the design excellence category now goes beyond Ontario. Why open that up internationally?

BB: Actually, a few years ago the greatest intellectual export from Canada was architectural services and design. Ontario architects are respected and desired around the world, and as a result, some of the finest buildings being made internationally are by Ontario architects. We thought it would be great to celebrate those, along with all the excellent work happening inside Ontario.

BBH: What are some of the highlights from this year’s show?

BB: I love the Regent Park Aquatic Centre. The fact that it just opens up, it just blows apart the whole institutional myth of concrete block bunkers. It’s got all this wonderful transparency. Even if you’re not going there, if you’re just travelling to work, or coming home, I think you get a certain enthusiasm just seeing everyone in the pool.

Another gem is the Toronto Police Service’s Division 11 in the Junction. That building preserves the heritage of the school, all while opening up the walkway through the colonnade and inviting the public in. On the inside, it’s not just a police station – there’s a room there for the public as well. It reinforces that whole sense of partnership. I think that’s wonderful.

I also love the Ryerson Image Centre’s School of Image Arts. It just comes alive thanks to the LED treatment. When you’re passing by, it speaks to the whole city and beyond.

BBH: I heard you once played hockey with a local hero, Frank Gehry?

BB: That I may have overstated. I was there for the game, but my skating ability is next to zip.

BBH: What happened?

BB: Rick Holdenby of the University of Waterloo (where I studied architecture) had this intramural hockey thing. So we got ice time in the middle of the night, and Frank Gehry was also playing. He loved hockey – he even designed a whole series of furniture for Knoll and named them after hockey terms.

BBH: That’s great! Was there anything else you wanted to bring up about architecture or the OAA?

BB: I really desire both on behalf of the OAA and out of my own personal interest, to engage the public in a dialogue about the value of architectural services. We need to open up this discussion, because architecture is the space we all live in.

I was involved in corporate architecture for an insurance company early on. It was always a proud moment for me when that company was recognized as a great employer, one of the top 100, since there was always a line about the contribution of the workspace. When you get that kind of positive reaction, it’s exhilarating. Our industry involves hours of tedium but there are those moments of ecstasy as well. And that’s why I stay engaged in this industry and really push people to talk about architecture.

Thanks for buzzing with us Bill!

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