A.I.A. Awards: The New Normal
Image credit: Jens Lindhe
In the past, the AIA Awards tended to recognize buildings
that were good, elegant, and polite, but not necessarily innovative. But in
recent years, the organization has honored snazzier projects, including many of
this year’s winners: BIG’s 8 House, made famous by the video of kids running
parkour-style up and down its helix; Morphosis’s building for the Cooper Union,
complete with its heavy metal and glass façade; and the interior of Patrick
Tighe’s foam walk-in blob.
Awards also went to some deliciously delicate structures,
such as Marlon Blackwell’s Visitor Pavilion for the Indianapolis Museum of
Art’s sculpture garden, and Koning Eizenberg’s Children’s Institute for Otis.
Brian Mackay received an award for his Ghost Architectural Laboratory, structures
that bring poetry to Nova Scotia but lack a clear function.
I couldn’t find anything truly mediocre. Only when I
reviewed the planning awards did memories of the old days come back to haunt
me. It was not that the projects were bad—and there were some sensible
proposals—but that they had the same old optimistic ideas about amelioration
planned and shown from above, in colored sketches. They seem to have little to
do with how environments actually develop over time, or are used.
On the other hand, the 25-year Award went to Frank Gehry’s
own house in Santa Monica, and the Gold Medal to Steven Holl. When I was
growing up in architecture, Gehry was a rebel despised by most AIA members.
Holl was a weirdo doing obtuse sketches from a loft in New York. Thom Mayne
kept failing his licensing exams, reportedly because he would get in fights
with the interlocutors at the oral exam.
I thought that if only these architects had a chance to make
significant buildings, the world would change. They did get plenty of chances,
but the revolution never happened. Instead, they built up firms that are now
among the largest in the country, and collectively produced a new norm of
expressive, articulated buildings that, much more than in the past, showed you
how they were made, evoked and framed spaces other than their immediate surroundings,
made better use of natural resources, and developed their own character. They
brought poetry to the prose of the building practice, though one of measured
rhymes and practiced meters.
That’s the new normal. At least, that’s true at the top of
the profession, where good architecture appears. As always, this is a small
percentage of built work. The difference is that now the AIA is recognizing, on
the whole, the best work. It cannot honor projects that are truly radical or
critical, and probably never will. I only wish that there were a way to
recognize architecture like that of Hernan Diaz, Ball Nogues, or the exceedingly
radical Leon Krier—architecture that we cannot easily digest, and that might
never even exist, but deserves to be rewarded all the same.