In terms of ideology and style the major awards distributed this year by the American Institute of Architects are positively schizoid. Whether this came about by accident or design is hard to tell--different juries were responsible for different prizes--but either way, it is a crystal-clear reflection of the argumentative state of American architecture today.
Consider this: Pietro Belluschi's 12-story Equitable Building in Portland, Ore., an icon of the postwar triumph of the International Style, is given the 1982 Twenty-Five Year Award. Gwathmey Siegel and Associates of New York, whose work over the past 13 years has helped to define the term "late modernism," wins the Architectural Firm Award. Then, in the honor awards, up pops the name of Michael Graves, an acknowledged leader of the self-consciously "post-modern" group.
In an ironic class by itself is the 1982 Gold Medal given Romaldo Giurgola for his lifelong contributions to architecture. The irony dates from 1965, when Giurgola's design for the Institute's own headquarters won an AIA-sponsored competition but didn't get built.
Belluschi and the Gwathmey Siegel firm make a natural sort of link even though the latter's elaborations of modernism are a lot more complicated than the former's sleek postwar forms, but Belluschi and Graves would make an unlikely pair on any list. These are the gentlemen who crossed verbal swords in the mean fight that set the architectural tone for the early 1980s.
Addressing the Portland City Council two years ago, Belluschi scathingly referred to Graves' competition-winning design for a new municipal office building there as, among other things, an "enlarged jukebox." Graves' defenders responded by attacking "those who have fragmented the city's fabric with their Slick-Tech jewels," leaving no doubt that Belluschi's handsome aluminum-and-glass Equitable Building was considered a pace-setting offender. (In practical terms Graves won the fight. His polychrome box, so resonant of the 1930s, will be completed this fall. But the debate goes on.)
If this breakdown of conflicting styles and ideas has the decisive merit of being not boring, the picture it presents is almost too clear. Consider Gold Medal winner Giurgola, whose work with the firm Mitchell/Giurgola over two decades is hard to classify except for its general excellence.
True, Giurgola can be called a form-giver--even photographs of his competition-winning design for the new Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, can lift the spirits--and his work can be called modernist, or late modernist, or neo-modernist, or whatever. But his buildings almost always evince an extraordinary respect for the demands of a specific site, the symbolic and functional needs of the users, and the existing architecture.
For Giurgola, 61, the pleasure of receiving this award, the highest the AIA can bestow, must be bittersweet, for his special skills as an architect were nowhere more persuasively demonstrated than in the clearly contemporary building he designed 17 years ago to house the AIA offices. The distinction of that design was the gentle way it sheltered Dr. Thornton's Octagon House on New York Avenue, but the AIA, in a low moment, allowed controversy to override quality and as a result got the larger and lesser building it now occupies.
The AIA is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year. Giving Giurgola its top 1982 award is thus a gesture of some significance--a high moment, if not precisely an atonement, and a fitting reminder that design quality and not ideology or style is the charge given the organization's awards juries.
Accordingly, the juries selecting this year's honor awards for specific achievements--including separate categories for new and restored structures--opted for low-decibel achievements when the big bang did not appear among the more than 450 submissions. As Joan E. Goody, chairwoman of one of the juries, ruefully commented, "We had anticipated more examples of design that could represent solutions to the many large-scale, socially significant or technologically difficult building problems facing us today."
The modest winning projects, she continued, are spatially organized "for the benefit of the user, rather than to satisfy a preconceived geometric order" and they are "sensitive to and fit easily into their surroundings, avoiding harsh juxtapositions of scale and treatment."
Half of the 12 awards were given to residential projects. Four of these were for private houses, which, as any architect will tell you, allow more creative freedom--more fun, in short--than almost any other type of design even though they bring in a lot less money. There's a social payoff, too, if the skills so employed can later be harnessed for larger purposes.
If photographs can tell the story, the best of the residential designs belongs to Graves, for his thoughtful, provocative addition to an existing house in Princeton, N.J., and to Jaquelin Robertson of Eisenman/Robertson Architects of New York, for his beautiful shingle mansion in East Hampton.
The two projects present fascinating contrasts. The Graves addition looks strange and makes you think in a sort of back-to-basics way, with different colors and striking forms marking fundamental functions: entrance, hearth, suburban garden. Ironically, in view of Graves' aggressive anti-modernist stance, the building is quite modernist in one respect. It is through-and-through a personal statement, an object unto itself. By contrast Robertson almost lulls you to sleep with his extraordinary sleight of hand, effortlessly changing and updating a prototype, the New England "saltbox" house, while maintaining its basic personality.
Outstanding among the other projects, none of them very large, are the flashy, tricky, High-Tech polychrome Illinois Regional Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped in Chicago (Joseph Casserly, architect, City of Chicago; Stanley Tigerman and Associates, consulting); a stunningly unpretentious, beautifully apt elementary school in San Francisco (Esherick Homsey Dodge and Davis, architects); and a new headquarters building for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge, Mass. (Kallman, McKinnell & Wood, architects). This appealing, elegant, low-key building, by the same architects who designed the dramatically sculptural new Boston City Hall, in itself records a large part of the journey of American architecture during the 1970s.
Only one of the 12 award-winning projects even remotely qualifies as an attack upon a large-scale, "socially significant" issue. This is the restoration (at a rock-bottom cost of about $10,000 per unit) of 43 worn-down, owner-occupied Victorian homes in a depressed inner-city neighborhood close to booming downtown Denver. The project, funded jointly from federal, state and private sources and supervised by Long Hoeft Architects of Denver, paid handsome dividends in terms of community pride and clearly sets an example worth learning from.
In a way, though, it is a depressing commentary if this is the best we can do in addressing one of the basic, pressing needs of the society. It is often said that a new generation of architects has turned its collective back upon social responsibility. If the assessment is too glib, it is at least pointed. Modern architecture's idealistic notions of how to house the world's poor haven't worked, in the main, but the reasons for the failure are staggeringly complex. To their great credit, the early modern architects passionately cared.