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AIA Selects 2012 Gold Medal and Firm Award Recipients

WASHINGTON (AIA) – The AIA's Board of Directors awarded the 2012 Gold Medal to Steven Holl, FAIA, and the Architecture Firm Award to VJAA, the Minneapolis-based firm noted for its consistently rigorous approach to research-driven form-making. The Gold Medal is considered the profession's highest honor. The Firm Award, the highest honor bestowed on an architecture firm.

Holl and his firm, Steven Holl Architects, have completed projects that tackle the urban-scale planning and development conundrums that define success in the built environment. He’s able to work with diverse clients to get projects executed, all while being a tenured professor at Columbia University. His explorations have served as an inspiration to his colleagues.

"I am really surprised and happy. It's an amazing day," said Holl. "I am definitely going to have a good birthday tomorrow!"

Founded in 1995, VJAA has won acclaim for the way it uses architectural research to create buildings uniquely and empirically attuned to geography, climate, history, and culture. The firm’s three principals (Vincent James, FAIA, Jennifer Yoos, AIA, and, Nathan Knutson, AIA) have lead VJAA on a wide-ranging search for what they call the “embedded intelligence” of projects: the essential markers of place, function, materiality, and craft, which lie beneath each work and serve as an armature for its development.

Holl completed two projects located in China in 2009 – in Shenzhen and Beijing - that are emblematic of his approach to architecture and his innovative method of design inquiry.

His Linked Hybrid, in Beijing, is a series of circularly arranged towers, filled with 700 apartments and enough ancillary programming (hotels, schools, restaurants, park spaces) to form its own micro-urban community. The towers are linked by a system of 20th floor skywalks that trace a ring of public programs. In contrast to the mega-block street walls typically erected by Chinese developers, the Hybrid invites the city in with green space, public programs, and playfully varied porous massing.

The Vanke Center in Shenzhen is quite literally a horizontal skyscraper: a long rectilinear mass tipped on its side with arms and branches reaching out from its main stem. Holl’s building hovers above garden and park spaces on eight legs, creating a shaded micro-climate and quality public outdoor space that’s sorely lacking in developing-world cities. Making the building co-exist with the green space below necessitated that this developing nation take a fundamental symbol of its burgeoning prosperity--a new shimmering high rise tower--and tip it on its side. Such depth of inquiry and lack of presupposition in Holl’s work makes this kind of audacious gambit almost common in his buildings.

Read more about Steven Holl here.

“We are honored to be recognized by the AIA with this important award,” said Vincent James, FAIA, principal at VJAA. “This recognition is due to talented and committed employees, ambitious clients and the strong support we receive from our local design community. With this encouragement, we will continue to build a practice that strives to innovate while creating a responsive architecture that is sensitive to its users and its place.”

Read more on VJAA here.

For a moderately sized firm in a struggling economy, spending time and money on these kinds of open-ended explorations could be a risky gambit, but VJAA has made it an explicit part of their practice. One area this research has focused on are material innovations, including technologies that combine structural and skin elements, surfaces that filter specified amounts of sound and light, and systems that temper the ambient climate.

Another area of intensive research for VJAA is its use of digital practice tools, particularly emphasizing integrated design and sustainable features. With these tools, the firm’s latest projects have started their design path with a clear understanding of how they will perform in a real-world environment, and these buildings are frequently cited for their pioneering sustainability. One recent project, The Charles Hostler Student Center at American University in Beirut, Lebanon, received a 2009 COTE Top 10 award, but this isn’t the only honor VJAA has been celebrated with recently: ARCHITECT Magazine named VJAA the top award-winning firm in 2010.

About The American Institute of Architects

For over 150 years, members of the American Institute of Architects have worked with each other and their communities to create more valuable, healthy, secure, and sustainable buildings and cityscapes. Members adhere to a code of ethics and professional conduct to ensure the highest standards in professional practice. Embracing their responsibility to serve society, AIA members engage civic and government leaders and the public in helping find needed solutions to pressing issues facing our communities, institutions, nation and world. Visit


The AIA Gold Medal

The Vanke Center/Horizontal Skyscraper in Shenzhen, China. Image: Iwan Baan.

The Dayton House, Minneapolis. Image: VJAA.


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