HWKN's installation of "Wendy," displayed in the courtyard of MoMA P.S. 1, was the 2012 winner of the Young Architects Program in New York.
Courtesy HWKN HWKN's installation of "Wendy," displayed in the courtyard of MoMA P.S. 1, was the 2012 winner of the Young Architects Program in New York.

It was an innocent question from a lawyer I met during a brief vacation: “So who do you think are the most important American architects under forty today?” I started to answer, stopped, and scratched my head. Usually I don’t like “best of” or “my favorite” lists, but his query did make me think about what distinguishes the American architects who are now beginning to make their mark. What are they doing both in their design practices and in terms of approaches that are helping us see how we can respond to today’s social, physical, and cultural challenges?

Allowing for my biases and peculiar perspective, three observations stand out. The first is that there are many more young-ish architects distinguishing themselves in Europe than in the U.S. Though the recession has taken its toll, young architects have a much easier time obtaining significant commissions in Europe. Places such as Spain, the Netherlands, and the U.K. have been breeding grounds for innovative, interesting, and sophisticated work.

Bjarke Ingels
Courtesy Stephen Voss Bjarke Ingels

The second is that I cannot think of a single purely “blobbist” architect or firm whose work I would single out for distinction and promise. I am sure I can be proven wrong, but the disciples of Greg Lynn, Hani Rashid and Lise Anne Couture, or Hernan Diaz Alonso are not yet doing work of note. One issue is that the challenges involved in translating complex formal explorations into built form are immense, and might take firms with the size and heft of Zaha Hadid Architects to get it done. The work may also be too alien and weird to easily install itself in our culture.

On the other hand, I do not see a new generation of classicists or New Urbanists who have caught my eye. It might be that I have too many doubts about their approaches, or that the work has a harder time being noticed in a culture looking for ever more provocative images. Yet I also wonder whether the kind of education offered at Notre Dame, Ball State University, and the University of Miami also does not form students whose approach is too out of step with current concerns. The same might be said of students learning at the opposite end of the spectrum—say, students learning under the computer-oriented focus from a place such as SCI-Arc.

The third is that almost all firms I can think of are partnerships of one form or another. SO-IL, WORKac, REX, Ball-Nogues, MOS, and HWKN, to mention just the first six to trip off my tongue are all collaborations between life partners, schoolmates, former co-workers, or some combination of all of those.

There are also wider networks, such as that of OMA or the MoMA P.S. 1 Young Architects Program winners. The Netherlands-based firm has been producing architects of note for several generations now. Most have been European, though it is easy to forget that Miami-based Arquitectonica came out of that orbit. It is not just that people such as WORKac's Dan Woods, AIA, or REX's Joshua Prince-Ramus worked for Rem Koolhaas and his team, but that the high and sometimes populist, sometimes ironic modernism he espouses has proven to be an effective and influential teaching tool. The P.S. 1 program, meanwhile, though it leans towards the computer-focused, gives young architects a chance to build a project and receive a great deal of attention. 

David Adjaye
David Adjaye

One fact remains constant: Most of the best architects still work in either New York or Los Angeles, and have worked for the most well-known practitioners and teachers clustered in those places. It takes more time for somebody like Marlon Blackwell, FAIA, toiling away in Arkansas, to come to anyone else’s attention. By the time he showed up on my radar, he was over fifty. 

Finally, we might have to look at the whole discussion more democratically. Some of the most interesting work in this country is being done by Bjarke Ingels and David Adjaye. There are clusters of American architects creating promising work from Beijing to Berlin. Firms such as OMA and Snøhetta have shown the way for global practices that begin around specific projects and evolved into more or less loose groupings of practitioners. 

I will make one prediction: Architects of tomorrow will, thank heavens, neither desire to nor be able to operate like The Fountainhead's Howard Roark. The era of an architect imposing heroic structures (with the help of an army of drafting drones) on a supine culture is gone. The future will be looser, less stable, and less monumental. In the future, architects will have to rely on tactics, ephemeral projects, reuse and rethinking, and a host of new technologies while figuring out how to ground us in such a world of continual change.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.