Op-Ed

Architecture Awards Reflect Changing Priorities

It’s a new day in architecture. This year’s award season brought a surprise: a focus that’s shifting to include not just aesthetics but also the impact of our work.

Mary Ann Lazarus
It’s award season for major architectural prizes: the American Institute of Architects’ (AIA) Gold Medal and the international Pritzker Architecture Prize. These are considered the highest honors for an architect. The goal of the Pritzker Prize is “to honor a living architect or architects whose built work demonstrates a combination of those qualities of talent, vision, and commitment, which has produced consistent and significant contributions to humanity and the built environment through the art of architecture.”

Typically, these recipients reflect the changing aesthetic and cultural direction of the times—from Le Corbusier and Kenzo Tange in the 1960s, to Fumihiko Maki and César Pelli in the 1990s, to Glenn Murcutt and Richard Rogers in the early 2000s, and, finally including some women with Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, and Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, in the past decade. Each is well known for a body of work that has won numerous design awards and are must-see destinations for other architects.

But this year something changed, and for the better. The AIA Gold Medal went to Ed Mazria, FAIA, the founder of Architecture 2030.  Ed’s talent, vision, and commitment have taken a different form, not because of his body of built work, but for his decades-long leadership in transforming the architectural profession to one that’s focused on the critical role of design in climate mitigation. This sends a powerful message that being a great architect is about much more than buildings: it’s about the impact of our work. It’s also a wonderful signal from the AIA that its commitment to climate action is real.

And then along came the recipients of the 2021 Pritzker Prize, French architects Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philipe Vassal. Their work defies the traditional definitions of design excellence. With a longstanding focus on passive design solutions, the two are committed to restorative architecture and a goal to (as quoted in the New York Times) “never demolish, never cut a tree, never take out a row of flowers.” What an amazing statement—the ultimate in “less is more”—and how wonderful that the Pritzker jurors recognized their importance at this pivotal time when transforming existing buildings and a focus on reducing embodied carbon is critical.

But wait, there’s more! The AIA also bestowed the coveted Architecture Firm Award this year to Moody Nolan Architects. Although many of the previous Firm Award winners are terrific, often with deeply sustainable projects, this year’s winner takes things to the next level. The largest African-American-owned firm in the country, Moody Nolan’s mantra is “diverse by design.” They bring a strong community-based approach to all of their work, and, in the words of Jonathan Moody, CEO, “Architecture is not about the building; it’s about all the things that buildings help bring together.” That’s a pretty radical thought for architects.

This trifecta of awards sends important signals within and outside the architecture industry. It’s a new time. A new set of much more important criteria that demonstrates the true potential of design to address real, vital problems. And there’s a new definition of design excellence for the next generation of architectural leaders to embrace, the ones that will have to deal with the challenges that previous architects, even Gold Medal and Pritzker award winners, are leaving behind. 

Mary Ann Lazarus, FAIA, LEED Fellow, is a consultant with the firm of Cameron MacAllister Group, advisors to the design and construction professions. As a member of the CMG team, Lazarus works with design firms to integrate greater sustainability and resiliency outcomes throughout their practice. She also is an adjunct faculty and Sustainability Program Coordinator at Washington University in St. Louis.

Published May 3, 2021

Lazarus, M. (2021, May 3). Architecture Awards Reflect Changing Priorities. Retrieved from https://www.buildinggreen.com/op-ed/architecture-awards-reflect-changing-priorities

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