A-school Bestows Inaugural Distinguished Alumni Award on Warren T. Byrd, Jr., FASLA, Professor Emeritus
A-school Bestows Inaugural Distinguished Alumni Award on Professor Emeritus
By Jenny M. Abel
It’s a recognition perhaps long overdue. The University of Virginia School of Architecture’s newly created Distinguished Alumni Award, presented on Sept. 22 at the annual Dean’s Forum Dinner in Charlottesville, is the School’s first and only award specifically for alumni. For a graduate of any of the School’s four departments, the honor recognizes outstanding achievement in professional, societal, academic, artistic, or other areas—including service to U.Va. and its Architecture School.
Guy Geier presents the Inaugural Distinguished Alumni Award to Warren Byrd at the Annual Dean's Forum Dinner
The inaugural recipient—Warren T. Byrd, Jr., FASLA (MLA ’78)—is a name familiar to many in the A-school community, and was chosen from 14 nominations and three finalists.
“This award is about much more than personal achievement,” said Guy Geier (BSArch ’76, MArch ’78), who chaired the award selection committee along with five other Dean’s Advisory Board members and two faculty members. “Its intent is to highlight alumni who have enriched the School, their profession, and/or the world in a broader way—and Warren has certainly done that through his training, hiring, and inspiring of the next generation along with building an award-winning private practice.”
With a career encompassing 26 years of teaching and more than 30 years of practice, Byrd is best known for his inimitable passion for and commitment to landscape architecture both as a professor emeritus of the School and as a founding partner of Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects (NBW), which he started with his wife, Susan Nelson, in 1981 (under a slightly different moniker).
“Two decades of students experienced Warren’s rigor, humor, and passion for plants by running the Charlottesville streets and the slopes of the Blue Ridge to identify trees in his plants classes,” wrote his nominator, Michael Vergason (BSArch ’72, MLA ’76). “In the sheer numbers of students he touched through his teaching, he has influenced the tone and climate of our field.”
Byrd estimates he taught at least 1,000 A-school students from 1979 to 2005—and has mentored many more by way of employment or externships at his firm. Through NBW’s work—which includes the Campbell Hall additions, the Dell, and other U.Va. sites—his fingerprints are all over not only the Architecture School but the entire University.
“Warren is a passionate, gifted designer with an extraordinary ability to teach,” praised Jocelyn Kelley (MLA ’92), a former student and now a colleague of Byrd’s. “He made landscape architecture accessible to everyone—as though it was a natural extension of our beings, a basic art to which all people should be exposed. And he taught us to see—really see—the world around us by getting off the beaten path.”
A-school Professor Emeritus Reuben Rainey (MLA ’78), a former classmate and colleague of Byrd, echoed Kelley’s comments: “Warren had that magical ability to draw out of a student his or her greatest potential and to do so with grace and humor, tailoring his instruction to each individual.”
Byrd admits he always considered teaching to be the “nobler cause,” if also the more intense and exhausting one. Yet, as NBW’s size and stature grew, in 2005 he decided to leave the A-school faculty and devote himself full time to the firm.
Today, Byrd is one of America’s leading landscape architects, and what was once a small firm in Charlottesville has expanded to a 33-person operation with a second office in New York City—success that Byrd says is due in no small part to his partner, Thomas L. Woltz (BSArch ’90, MArch ’96, MLA ’97), who has been with the firm since 1997 and assumed full ownership this year. NBW has done work on nearly every continent and garnered more than 80 national and regional awards. Having employed around 50 A-school alumni, including 19 currently on staff, the result has been increased global stature for not only NBW but the entire A-school.
As for Byrd, who credits many A-school mentors for fueling his own success and passion, he regards the Distinguished Alumni Award as a high but humbling honor—one that pays tribute to the entire Landscape Architecture Department and School.
“Considering how many people are behind any one person’s success, and how many alumni are thoroughly qualified to have received this award, I felt very honored,” Byrd said. “I see this award as a sign of the collaborative and collegial nature of our discipline that ultimately reflects back to the entire School.”
2013 Distinguished Alumni Award
According to the award’s set-up, Byrd will serve on the selection committee for the 2013 Distinguished Alumni Award, to be presented next fall. Nominations will be solicited in the coming weeks, with an earlier deadline than last year for logistical planning reasons.
The School received a broad range of nominees in 2012—with all three finalists coming from different professions: city planning and architectural preservation in addition to landscape architecture. The committee hopes to receive even more nominations this year, including more from the younger alumni ranks.
“This award is not only for alumni who have ‘arrived’ in their professions—it’s also for graduates who may be relatively early in their careers but are already doing amazing things,” Geier said.
Despite the difficulty in choosing a single individual for the award each year, A-school Dean Kim Tanzer expressed the importance of the award.
“Among leading architecture schools, many of which give similar honors, U.Va.’s has one of the most diverse, talented, and compassionate alumni populations,” Tanzer said. “This is just one of many ways we feel that the School of Architecture can recognize the huge difference our graduates make—to the School, U.Va., their professions, and the world.”
Published: October 9, 2012