Remembering George Baird, 1939–2023

A photograph of architect and scholar George Baird holding a microphone and apparently speaking in a room of other people.

George Baird speaking at the conference "Ethics of the Urban: the City and the Spaces of the Political," at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, 2012. Photo: Maggie Janik.

The architect and scholar George Baird served on the faculty at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design as the G. Ware Travelstead Professor of Architecture from 1993–2004. He died on October 17, 2023, at the age of 84.

George Baird invented architectural semiotics in the essay, “’La Dimension Amourese in Architecture,” published in arena in 1967 and reworked in the book Meaning in Architecture, which he edited with Charles Jencks in 1969. George’s preliminary study of the semiotics of architecture elaborates the basic structuralist insight that buildings are not simply physical supports but artifacts and events with meaning, and hence are signs dispersed across some larger social text. That insight is then trained on two of the most enduring of late-modernist myths, the building as a totally designed environment (exemplified by Eero Saarinen’s CBS Building, New York) and the building as a value-free servo-mechanism (exemplified by Cedric Price’s Potteries Thinkbelt project, Staffordshire).

The repercussions of George’s critique of modernist dogma would prove enormous, of course, extending over the next decade of architecture theory. But if the linguistic analogy—building as text—was perhaps inevitable (semiotics is designed to explain all cultural phenomena, including architecture) and in certain ways already latent in earlier models of architectural interpretation (those of Emile Kaufmann, John Summerson, or Rudolf Wittkower, for example), one must still decide on the most pertinent and fruitful level of homology between architecture and language. That is, is the individual building like a language, or is architecture as a whole like a language? The first view has affinities with traditional treatments of buildings as organic units whose origins and intentions of formation must be elucidated, whereas the second view, which George adopts, shifts the interpretive vocation considerably. No longer is the interpreter’s task to say what the individual building means (any more than it is the linguist’s task to render the meanings of individual sentences) but rather to show how the conventions of architecture enable buildings to produce meaning. Questions are raised about users’ and readers’ expectations, about how a structure of expectation enters into and directs the design of a building (now thought of as a kind of work of rhetoric), about how any architectural “utterance” is a shared one, shot through with qualities and values, open to dispute, already uttered—questions, in short, about architecture’s public life, to which George would turn to fully in The Space of Appearance in 1995.

In semiotic terms, if architecture as a whole is like a language (langue) then the individual building or project is like a speech act (parole), which entails that the architect cannot simply assign or take away meaning and meaning cannot be axiomatic. Rather architecture becomes a readable text, and the parameters of its legibility are what we mean by rhetoric. Rhetoric operates within the structure of shared expectations and demands an ethical, even erotic relationship with the reader: an “amorous dimension,” a phrase George borrowed from Roland Barthes. But rhetoric is not subjective expression. Its procedures are inseparable from processes of argument and justification with respect to the worldly function of architecture’s making sense.

In all this, George approached his study as a scholar-architect. In this role, he had precedents in Alan Colquoun, Kenneth Frampton, and others, then in London. George and Elizabeth Davis married and moved to London, where George basically began to train himself in semiotics and critical theory. It was in London that George was introduced to Hannah Arendt’s Human Condition, about which he wrote,

While she was not a writer about architecture, over the span of subsequent years, she shaped my thinking about architecture more than any other single figure. I remember distinctly the tingle that ran through my body when I first read her scornful comparison of Jeremy Bentham – the very figure whose corpse I passed by most mornings at University College London – with David Hume, who, she sneered, ‘in contradistinction to Bentham, was still a philosopher.’ Arendt’s discussion of utilitarianism confirmed once and for all in my mind, the pernicious influence of contemporary efforts to revive ‘functionalism’ as a basic premise of compelling architectural theory…. All in all, Arendt, [Ivan] Illich, and [Michel] Foucault together created for me a picture of skepticism of, not to say hostility to, the instrumentalized version of enlightenment rationality, which underpinned my critique of architectural functionalism and has stayed with me to the present day.

As I say, I will always think of George as first and foremost a scholar of architecture. I tried to celebrate this conviction when I was invited to introduce his Preston Thomas lectures at Cornell in 1999. I explained that George’s theory placed Claude Perrault’s concepts of positive and arbitrary beauty into active equivalence with the linguistic distinction between langue and parole, or the generalized grammar (langue) and an individual instance (parole) of speech. For what is achieved should not be understood as a simple simile of architecture as a language but rather as the creation out of two previous codes (beauty and linguistics) an entirely new one, unique to architecture, which is capable of recoding vast quantities of discourse, from eighteenth-century French theory’s concern with the natural basis of architecture, to modernism’s mimetic relationship with industry, to postmodernism’s loosening of the classical order. Rewriting such interactions as components in a complex fraction—positive beauty / arbitrary beauty : langue/parole—enables the enlargement of architectural interpretation to include an Arendt-like social communicative function of architecture’s handling of style, materials, and technology, and to measure the social unconscious of different, competing architectural representations in their specific contexts. Indeed, as George uses it, this feature seems to anticipate postmodernism as a kind of revenge of the parole—of the specific utterance, of personal styles and idiolects. Henceforth, worry about empirical method and total design would be completely eclipsed by concerns with the contexts and instances of meaning.

But during my introduction at Cornell, my bad pronunciation of the French “r” destroyed my attempt to explicate Baird’s Barthes-ian reading of Perrault’s parole! George thanked me for the intro, but left it at that: “Michael, thank you, but I just don’t know what else to say.”

George and I talked much about his theory but surprisingly little about his building, substantial though his professional practice was. Once when Martha and I visited George’s Toronto office on a weekend, George projected what struck me as an odd neutrality toward some of the important projects of the firm. About the wonderful Butterfly Conservatory in Niagara Parks Botanical Garden, a completely unprecedented program in a cold climate, he opined, “We should have thought more about being the bugs. Perhaps we thought too much about the children.” George used the same voice he uses at studio reviews. Engaged but neutral, critical yet open minded, reading the project with an Eames-like “Powers-of-Ten” zoom-out to reframe the butterfly’s narrative and recontextualize the architectural object’s confrontation with the world. Perhaps he was performing for Martha and me; George knew we liked his theatricality. But perhaps, on the other hand, this is what a weekend in the office was for him. He was the office consultant in criticality and social aspiration. He was the in-house philosopher.

George was a well celebrated professional, but his habits are those of a scholar.