2020 AIA/ACSA Topaz Medallion for Excellence in Architectural Education Recipient
Architecture’s future depends on its next generation of leaders—and the educators who impact their lives. The Topaz Medallion honors those who educate others to ensure architecture’s enduring excellence.
For nearly four decades, Professor David Leatherbarrow has trained reflective practitioners through his graduate and undergraduate courses exploring the interdependence of design and theory. One of the world’s leading experts in the history and theory of architecture, he has supervised 30 dissertations and advised an additional 30, the authors of which have assumed prominent leadership and teaching positions across the world.
“This is an outstanding teacher of exceptional energy and ambition. He has been invited as a visiting tutor and scholar quite literally by distinguished institutions all over the world,” wrote Kenneth Frampton, the Ware Professor of Architecture at Columbia University, in a letter supporting Leatherbarrow’s nomination for the Topaz Medallion. “What can one say? Elite teachers in architectural schools do not come more distinguished than this.”
At the University of Pennsylvania’s Stuart Weitzman School of Design, where he has taught since 1984, Leatherbarrow levied his scholarship to create a foundational culture that persists to this day. For 20 years, he led the school’s first-year studio, which he coupled with a course focused on his signature integration of design and theory. In addition, he has taught the required first-semester course in the school’s PhD program, and his instruction has established fluency in architecture’s theories and history for countless scholars and teachers. His academic leadership at Penn placed him at multiple levels of design education, including two stints as associate dean and department chair, two decades as PhD program chair, and interim leadership of the school’s urban design and undergraduate architecture programs. Prior to his tenure at Penn, Leatherbarrow taught in England at Cambridge University and the University of Westminster.
Leatherbarrow has been invited to serve as an academic advisor and assessor at schools across Europe, South America, and Asia. Their respective programs continue to seek his expertise in matters of faculty development, curriculum revision, and the needs of their students. He regularly counsels academic leaders and government officials as they seek new ways to meet the challenges of educating future architects. These institutions have also invited Leatherbarrow to serve as honorary professor or lecturer, roles that further support the development of international collaboration.
“Professor Leatherbarrow’s work moves effortlessly between architectural history, cultural theory, and environmental ethics, making his teaching particularly relevant in today’s world,” wrote Professor Mari Hvattum of The Oslo School of Architecture and Design in a letter supporting Leatherbarrow’s nomination. “Students intuit this relevance immediately, and I have rarely sensed such a poignant concentration as during his lectures or seminars.”
Leatherbarrow is a prolific author and co-edited his first book before he had finished his PhD dissertation. That initial inquiry into architectural drawing was followed by 10 additional works, many of which were translated into multiple languages. He has also penned more than 140 scholarly essays and articles.
“Like his teaching, these publications have been unfailingly thoughtful and have made a notable contribution to the current debate, particularly to the relation of building to landscape and therefore the growing ecological concerns,” wrote Joseph Rykwert, the Paul Philippe Cret professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. “As this was already implicit in his doctoral thesis, he must be thought of as one of the initiators of that important trend, rather than a follower.”
His writings have prompted more than 100 appearances at conferences, where he often assumes the role of keynote speaker. At the 2017 UIA World Architects Congress in Seoul, South Korea, Leatherbarrow presented his ideas to a crowd of 6,000 attendees.
Through his writings and teaching, Leatherbarrow has been a major force in shaping architectural education. As many of his students will attest, his energy and optimism for the built environment are infectious, and his positive vision is ceaselessly inspiring.