2012 AIA/ACSA Topaz Medallion for Excellence in Architectural Education

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George Baird, Intl. Assoc. AIA | 2012 AIA/ACSA Topaz Medallion
for Excellence in Architectural Education Recipient

By Sara Fernández Cendón, AIArchitect

George Baird, Intl. Assoc. AIA, an architectural educator known for his intellectual depth and breadth as much as for his commitment to socially engaged architecture, is the recipient of the 2012 AIA/ACSA Topaz Medallion for Excellence in Architectural Education. Long recognized for his association with the University of Toronto’s architecture school, Baird also is one of Canada’s most celebrated practicing architects. The Topaz Medallion honors an individual who has been intensely involved in architecture education for a decade or more.

In March, Baird will be awarded the medallion at the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA) annual meeting in Boston. The AIA will also recognize him at the 2012 AIA National Convention and Design Exposition in Washington, D.C., in May.

Baird is often credited with having helped a new generation of architects find a place at the intersection of architectural form and urban function. He did this by engaging disciplines beyond architecture and fearlessly exploring the political implications of city-making to articulate architects’ social responsibilities. Baird’s deep influence is evident in cities such as Toronto and Vancouver, but also through his prolific writing career and the many students inspired by his example who have gone on to teach and practice.

'Winds of change'

Baird received a bachelor of architecture degree from the University of Toronto School of Architecture in 1962. He conducted postgraduate research at University College in London where he worked closely with architectural critic Charles Jencks. There, the pair co-edited Baird’s first book, Meaning in Architecture. He returned to Toronto in 1967, a time when classic Modernist principles were sweeping the city and transforming entire blocks into tower-in-the-park-type schemes dominated by single-use zoning.

At the same time, a new breed of civic leaders and urban scholars were breaking onto the scene. Influenced in part by urban theorist Jane Jacobs and other more community-oriented models of urban development, this group wanted to do things differently. Typical Jane Jacobs–style urban planning arrived with common sense, homespun anecdotes about arranging building uses to keep parks and sidewalks safe for children and the importance of preserving old buildings. But Baird brought an intense theoretical and critical eye to Jacobsian city development, and quickly became a leading figure in this community—his teaching, scholarship, and practice serving as exploratory vehicles to further define the contours of a new kind of socially responsible urban architecture.

Upon his return to Canada, Baird began teaching at the University of Toronto, where he remained until 1993. Joost Bakker, a Vancouver-based principal at the multidisciplinary urban design firm Dialog, was a student at the University of Toronto when Baird joined the faculty. "As fresh new students in 1967, we encountered vestiges of old Modernism embodied in severe men in lab coats insisting that grey paper shapes be composed on 8-inch-by-10-inch white card,” wrote Bakker in Canadian Architect on the occasion of Baird receiving the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC) Gold Medal in 2010. "Barely into that first term, the ‘winds of change’ roared into the school. Bowled over and hardly able to catch our breath, we sensed another presence in the studio—shaggy-haired in jeans, boots, and a brown leather jacket—formulating incomprehensible terms like ‘…phenomenology…epistemological crisis…animal laborans…’”

This, of course, was George Baird, whose qualities as a teacher Charles Jencks summarizes in one phrase: “The philosophical architect. Like a professional philosopher, never frightened by the complexity or political implications of an issue, he debates the opposite opinions fiercely and at length until the next step forward is clear,” wrote Jencks in his recommendation letter.

Baird is often described as an avid observer of disciplines adjacent to architecture—from social and political theory to linguistics, literature, and cinema. This broad cultural platform has informed Baird’s exploration of the relationship between architecture and urbanism, specifically the nature of urban public space and the representational power of form. “His writings remain some of the only writings capable of intelligently bridging the gap between architecture and social politics,” wrote Sarah Whiting, Assoc. AIA, dean of Rice University’s School of Architecture, in her letter of recommendation.

Bruce Kuwabara, AIA, partner at Toronto-based KPMB Architects and a former student of Baird’s, wrote in Canadian Architect that Baird’s teaching and writing gave his generation “a way of thinking about architecture as a gesture within a social and cultural context.” 

Design DNA

Baird’s practice (currently Baird Sampson Neuert) was founded in Toronto in 1972, and received the RAIC Architectural Firm Award in 2007. Notable projects include Cloud Gardens Park in Toronto; Thomas L. Wells Public School in Toronto, the first LEED certified public school in Canada; and, more recently, the Old Post Office Plaza in St. Louis, and the Mission 2050 Research Centre, a cutting-edge agricultural research center at the University of Guelph in Ontario.

In 1993 Baird joined the faculty of the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, where he taught design studio and architectural theory. He served as director of master’s degree programs until 2004, when he returned to the University of Toronto to become dean of the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design. Before stepping down in 2009, Baird helped establish the Cities Centre, a multidisciplinary research institute that encourages the study of cities and a wide range of urban policy issues both in Canada and abroad.

Baird Sampson Neuert’s most recent successes rest on a long tradition of research and innovation that began in Baird’s teaching office. Baird employed many recent University of Toronto graduates, and with them he conducted early studies that became seminal in the field of urban design. In 1974, for example, Baird’s office produced “onbuildingdowntown,” Toronto’s first set of urban design guidelines, co-authored with Roger du Toit, Stephen McLaughlin, and others.

In the pages of Canadian Architect, John Sewell, a former mayor of Toronto who at the time served on the city council, described the report as eye-opening and revelatory. “Ours was a particularly innocent approach, attacking height and size as the evil to be confronted,” he wrote. “[Baird] put his finger on things that not many of us on the city council realized were problems: the open plazas around the big buildings, the many bland banking halls that deadened the street, the wide setbacks that killed the idea of public space.” 

Other early and influential studies include “Built Form Analysis,” which drew out the connection between land use policies and urban forms in Toronto; “Greening Downtown Vancouver,” the city’s first urban design guidelines, focused on the Georgia-Robson street corridors; and the revitalization of the St. Lawrence neighborhood, a derelict area near downtown Toronto.

“George’s presence and influence,” wrote former Toronto director of urban design Robert Glover in Canadian Architect, “is so much a part of the design DNA of Toronto that we sometimes take him for granted. His contribution to Toronto’s approach to urbanism is the result of a lot of hard work by an amusing, intelligent, thoughtful, and highly principled architect and urban designer.”

Recent Related:

Michael Graves, FAIA, Awarded the 2010 AIA/ACSA Topaz Medallion for Excellence in Architectural Education
Adele Naude Santos, FAIA, Awarded the 2009 AIA/ACSA Topaz Medallion for Excellence in Architectural Education
Stanly Tigerman, FAIA Awarded the 2008 AIA/ACSA Topaz Medallion for Excellence in Architectural Education

Photo Credits

  • George Baird, Intl. Assoc. AIA image courtesy of Andre Beneteau
  • Cloud Gardens Park in Toronto, Canada image courtesy of Michael Awad
  • Meaning in Architecture edited by Charles Jencks & George Baird image courtesy of John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landcape, and Design Canadian Architect
  • Old Post Office Plaza in St. Louis image courtesy of Sam Fenetress
  • George Baird engaged during a thesis review image courtesy of Jesse Jackson

George Baird, Intl. Assoc. AIA

(Photo credits at bottom of page)

Baird is the 37th recipient of the AIA/ACSA Topaz Medallion.

The Topaz Medallion for Excellence in Architectural Education is awarded jointly by the AIA and the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA), to an individual, who must be living at the time of nomination, who has spent at least a decade primarily involved in architectural education, and whose primary contribution to architectural education has been on the North American continent.

Visit the ACSA website
Go to the ACSA Awards website
View the AIA Honors and Awards website

2012 AIA/ACSA Topaz Medallion for Excellence in Architectural Education Jury

Edward A. Vance, AIA, Chair
EV&A Architects, Inc.
Las Vegas

Preston Scott Cohen
Harvard University, Design School
Cambridge, Mass.

Dana Cuff
University of California, Los Angeles, Dept. of Architecture and Urban Design
Los Angeles

Glen S. LeRoy, FAIA
Lawrence Technological University, College of Architecture and Design
Southfield, Mich.

Nick Mancusi, Assoc. AIA
American Institute of Architecture Students (AIAS) President, 2011-2012
Scottsdale, Ariz.


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