Beyond Buildings


A.I.A. Awards: The New Normal

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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.



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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.