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National Building Museum Exhibit: A Roller Coaster Tour of Architecture

“It’s the strength and weakness of American architecture that it can quickly forget, that it has no memory.” —P/A Awards juror Ada Karmi-Melamede

By Leigh Franke

Is it possible to feel the same way about Seaside, Fla., and New York’s Battery Park City? About the work of Michael Graves, FAIA, and Richard Meier, FAIA? Which of each pair is more “progressive”?

The jurors of the long-established Progressive Architecture Awards would probably tell you neither. They’re all enshrined in Unbuilt→Built: The Influence of the Progressive Architecture Awards, a satellite exhibit of the National Building Museum’s (NBM) Unbuilt Washington show. This exhibit, on display at the AIA National Component in Washington, D.C., through August, selects seminal winners from the award’s past. Though the P/A Awards are doled out in advance of each project’s construction, all of the designs featured here became a reality.

All of the isms

Unbuilt→Built presents 25 projects that were eventually completed following receipt of the award. Martin Moeller, Assoc. AIA, NBM senior vice president and curator, organized the exhibit in partnership with the two former editors of Progressive Architecture magazine, John Morris Dixon, FAIA, and Thomas Fisher, Assoc. AIA. (ARCHITECT Magazine currently administers and publishes the P/A Awards, and Architecture Magazine published them from 1996 to 2006). Images and descriptions of the completed projects are coupled with jury comments and the original issues in which the proposals were published (along with several architectural models), forming a succinct retrospective of each project coming to fruition.

Rather than a narrow forecast for the future of design, the series reveals a highly fluid definition of innovation and a steady readjustment of the architect’s role over the award’s 59 years. Even within short periods, the early days of the award reveal a turnaround of jury preferences from the previous year: Modernism splintered into Postmodernism, then to Deconstructivism, and plenty of other isms. But for Moeller, “What is most interesting about these 25 projects is that despite their profound stylistic, technological, and philosophical differences, all of them represent ideas that remain relevant today in one way or another.”

In 1955, SOM’s Connecticut General Life Insurance Headquarters, an isolated suburban office park in Bloomfield, Conn., was called “truly progressive” by P/A jurors. Soon thereafter, in 1961, the jury selected I.M. Pei’s, FAIA, Modernist trio of concrete condominium towers in Philadelphia’s historic Society Hill neighborhood. Momentarily enthralled by tabula rasa urban planning, in reaction to the ensuing metastasis of sprawl and utopian redevelopments through the decade, the award proved true to its name by quickly shifting its focus toward projects more considerate of context and amenable to urbanism.

“The history of the award,” Moeller says, “demonstrates that architects were questioning Modernist orthodoxy much earlier than many people realize.” As early as 1963, projects like O’Neil Ford’s commercial development of the San Antonio River Walk began to earn the attention of the P/A jury. The historic renovation and expansion of the original structures along the river was the first preservation project recognized by the award, followed by BTA Architects Faneuil Hall Market renovation in Boston in 1975.

The pace of the exhibit is relentless. In 1984, Progressive Architecture honored the development of Seaside, Fla., by Duany Plater-Zyberk (with assistance from arch-classicist Leon Krier) alongside Cooper, Eckstut Associates’ intensely urban Battery Park City plan in Manhattan—both embodying a holistic, city-scale search for architecture’s role in shaping civic and private life. The next year saw an award go to Peter Eisenman’s, FAIA, textbook Deconstructivist Wexner Center at Ohio State University in Columbus. In 1989, the fantastical Dolphin and Swan Hotels at Disney World by Michael Graves, FAIA, used a ferociously whimsical Postmodernism to bring a very real interest in architecture to a place where Americans are eager to be amazed. Just seven years later, the P/A Awards, having cooled on flourishes of Beaux Arts wit, gave an award to Richard Meier, FAIA, for his Neo-Modernist, light-filled U.S. Courthouse in Phoenix.

As the awards program developed, winners such as Seattle’s 2004 Olympic Sculpture Park by Weiss/Manfredi spoke to the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of the profession. “If you’re wondering what the next big thing is in the world of architecture, it’s not architecture,” wrote Architecture Magazine editor-in-chief C.C. Sullivan in the January 2004 issue, “It’s bigger. It’s about architects making places, revitalizing cities and planning new towns.”

Representing modernity

Whipsaw transitions made the P/A Awards an anxiously awaited declaration of the new. Yet the program’s expectation that architects seek enduring ideals in novel ways gave it the longevity to outlast two magazines and nearly six decades. Without these expectations, the awards would have been dominated by dogmatic, aesthetic partisans picking their favorites from a stale roster of designers, and not much of an award at all.

And if it feels like the P/A Awards exhibit is encyclopedic and all-encompassing, the timescale of architecture will remind you that it’s not; that 59 years is just a snapshot in the story of architecture and human habitation. What binds all these projects (and the P/A Awards) together is their unflinching responsibility to represent modernity, nearly unrecognizable from one decade to the next, like the best architecture always has.


The Dolphin and Swan Hotels at Disney World in Orlando, Fla., by Michael Graves, FAIA. Photograph by Steven Brooke.

The Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. Photo by Jeff Goldberg/ESTO.

Richard Meier’s, FAIA, U.S. Courthouse in Phoenix. Image courtesy of Scott Frances/OTTO.

SOM’s 1955 Connecticut General Life Insurance Headquarters in Bloomfield, Conn. Image courtesy of Ezra Stoller/ESTO.


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