Left to right: Vincent James, Jennifer Yoos, and Nathan Knutson
Joe Pugliese Left to right: Vincent James, Jennifer Yoos, and Nathan Knutson

Recently, Minneapolis has been hailed by the mainstream media as an architectural hotbed, a snap portrayal sparked by the near-concurrent completion of projects by Jean Nouvel, Cesar Pelli, Michael Graves, and Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron. Hometown favorite VJAA might not be getting spreads in Newsweek or USA Today, but its work has earned the firm local celebrityhood and abundant accolades from the profession.

In the 15 years since Vincent James started the firm, VJAA has completed about 30 projects (most of them regional), and these have collected an impressive 12 honor awards from AIA Minnesota, six P/A Awards, and eight national AIA awards. These accomplishments are even more extraordinary considering the firm’s size: 14 staffers right now, led by James and partners Jennifer Yoos and Nathan Knutson.

James started his career working for former instructors—first Malcolm Holzman at Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates in New York and later Joe Valerio in Chicago—before being recruited by a large Minneapolis firm, where he was kept busy working on big cultural projects. Yoos, too, logged her share of large-firm experience, first in London, then in Minneapolis. This common background contributed to their interest in “forming responses that strive to deepen the context of a work, and exploring [things] more profoundly than you’re allowed to in a corporate setting,” as James puts it.

Their open-ended approach privileges research over form-making. For such a small firm to commit to a prolonged research phase—where the designers study materials, context, culture, use, building typology, environmental performance, and whatever else they deem relevant before producing images of any kind—is a considerable investment, but has clear payoffs. Says Yoos: “When you have a research-based process, you cast a big net and you don’t know what you’re looking for, but you know when you see good content.”

In 2008, VJAA completed its first project outside the United States, the Charles Hostler Student Center at the American University in Beirut, which received an AIA Honor Award last year and a P/A Award in 2006. Rather than deliver the monolithic facility called for in the brief, VJAA broke the program down into five smaller buildings that frame outdoor gathering spaces and are oriented and linked to maximize views and breezes from the adjacent Mediterranean Sea. The partners naturally hope the project leads to other international work.

Top 10: Award-Winning

Award of note: AIA Housing Award (Saint John’s Abbey and Monastery Guesthouse)

2. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill
New York
Award of note: AIA Honor Award for Architecture (Cathedral of Christ the Light)

3. DLR Group
Omaha, Neb.
Award of note: AIA Orlando Built Honor Award (Vista Del Lago Phase III)

4. Perkins+Will
Award of note: AIA Healthcare Design Awards (Oregon Health & Science University—Peter O. Kohler Pavilion)

5. Mark Cavagnero Associates
San Francisco
Award of note: Architectural Foundation of San Francisco, Kirby Ward Fitzpatrick Prize (Sava Pool)

6. Smithgroup
Award of note: AIA|DC Award of Excellence (Performing Arts Center, Montgomery College)

7. HOK
St. Louis
Award of note: ASID Design for Humanity Award

8. RDG Planning & Design
Des Moines, Iowa
Award of note: AIA Nebraska Honor Award (Union Pacific Childcare)

9. Cannon Design
Grand Island, N.Y.
Award of note: Boston Society of Architects Design Excellence Award (University of Maine Student Recreation and Fitness Center)

10. Sasaki Associates
Award of note: AIA Honor Award for Regional and Urban Design (Southworks/Lakeside Master Plan)