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Since the first Progressive Architecture (P/A) Award was given out in 1953, the program has been devoted to recognizing projects at a crucial moment: after the client is secured and the design is finessed, but before the brick-and-mortar construct is finished. ARCHITECT, which currently oversees the program, began discussions with the National Building Museum three years ago about the possibility of mounting an exhibition on the awards, and now G. Martin Moeller Jr., senior vice president and curator at the Washington D.C.–based institution, has compiled “Unbuilt–Built: The Influence of the Progressive Architecture Awards” as part of a trilogy of exhibitions on unbuilt work. On view from May 14 to Aug. 31 at AIA Headquarters, the exhibit looks at 25 influential projects from the program’s nearly 60-year history. It includes photos, drawings, and copies of Progressive Architecture and Architecture magazines. (All 25 projects were awarded before ARCHITECT inherited the program in 2007.) Moeller took time out from writing the final catalog text to speak with about the development of the exhibition.
What drives the fascination with unbuilt work?
There’s something about seeing the project presented in the hand of the architect—I use the term “hand” broadly because now obviously it’s mostly digital—but it’s kind of an unfiltered look at the idea. Even by the time the project is finished, even if it’s finished completely in accordance with that original design, when it’s published in the magazine there’s another layer; there are multiple filters between the idea and what we’re actually seeing. There are fewer of those when you’re looking at an unbuilt project, as presented by the architect himself or herself. And I think that’s part of the fascination with this: capturing that moment in time.
How did you select the 25 projects to highlight?
Fortunately, I was able to slough this off a little bit on the good nature of two former Progressive Architecture editors, Thomas Fisher and John Morris Dixon, who had already been developing a list of 25 very influential past winners of the award, and a separate list of 25 important architects who have been recognized along with the award. So that was under way. I took a look at their list, and we had some back-and-forth based on a variety of factors. But it’s fascinating when you look at the list—I think most people who know the subject matter will say, “Oh, yeah, that was kind of a watershed project.” These were seminal works that reflected or predicted changes in the course of architectural design and practice.
How did you define the “influence” of the projects?
There are a variety of types of influence. In some cases these were projects that were direct models for other projects. In other cases they were more influential in changing our thinking about design and technology. In other cases it was fascinating to trace the influence on the careers of particularly influential architects: These projects were influential for the people who did them as much as anything. Often as not they were influential in a broader level outside the realm of architecture.
Were there any buildings on the list that surprised you?
The one that comes to mind is the proposal for the commercial development of the San Antonio Riverwalk by O’Neil Ford and Allison Peery. It was published in 1963. And this is, I think, a very important project, both before they were involved and then after. It’s a fascinating case of something that began as a flood-control effort under the New Deal by the Works Progress Administration and is now a huge urban amenity. I knew of Ford’s involvement, but didn’t realize how critical it had been. And I didn’t realize it had won a P/A Award, particularly in 1963, a time we might think of as high Modernism. Here was a project that was not only preservation oriented, but unabashedly historicist in some ways. I would argue that it was still modern, but certainly responding to the historical context in a way that was remarkably sensitive, right at the time that Penn Station was about to come down.
Were any of these buildings particularly influential to you personally during your study of architecture?
To start with, the Atlantis Condominium by Arquitectonica. I remember the very first lecture I heard from an outside lecturer when I was in architecture school was Laurinda Spear from Arquitectonica. And I just loved the presentation. I mean, here was stuff that to me was not going into the sort of historicist realm of Postmodernism but was having fun, and yet it seemed to be seriously conceived. I’ve been in that hole in that building and it’s an exhilarating experience. To see the kind of cautious commentary of the jury at the time, which I’m sure I read then but didn’t remember, and to see it presented again in a context of other projects at a point when architecture was clearly wrestling with this postmodern thing was very interesting.
During your research, did you uncover any unexpected trends in the P/A Awards jury deliberations?
I think, by and large—and maybe this isn’t so surprising in the end—it’s the willingness of jurors of diverse philosophical standpoints to recognize excellence in whatever form. There were cases of adamant Modernists giving awards to clearly postmodern projects and vice versa. And not just in that easy modern-versus-Po-Mo realm. But they were talking about ideas and how well these people achieved what they set out to do. And that could lead to some surprising results. But I was ultimately encouraged by the willingness of people to really go beyond their own boundaries and say, “This is good.”
To see some of the projects featured in “Unbuilt–Built: The Influence of the Progressive Architecture Awards,” flip through the slide show above.