2012 Thomas Jefferson Awards for Public Architecture

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Alexander Cooper, FAIA | Notes of Interest

By Sara Fernández Cendón, AIArchitect

This year’s Thomas Jefferson Award for Public Architecture honors Alexander Cooper, FAIA, an urban designer who has reshaped many of the most iconic public spaces in New York City. Cooper and the other two 2012 Thomas Jefferson Award recipients are celebrated for demonstrating a commitment to quality design that recognizes public buildings as part of the nation’s cultural heritage.

The Thomas Jefferson Awards for Public Architecture recognize achievements in three categories: private-sector architects with a record of excellence in the design of public facilities, public-sector architects who promote design excellence within their agencies, and public officials or other individuals who have furthered public awareness of design excellence.

Category One: Alexander Cooper, FAIA

Cooper is receiving a Thomas Jefferson Award for his work in the private sector for making a significant contribution to the quality of public architecture. As the head of Cooper, Robertson & Partners, the New York–based firm he co-founded in 1979, Cooper has been instrumental in the development of virtually all of New York City’s most revered public spaces, from Battery Park City and Ground Zero to 42nd St. and Lincoln Center.

After graduating from Yale with an architecture degree, Cooper began his career in public service with New York City mayor John Lindsay’s administration. He served as director of design at the New York City Housing and Development Administration from 1968 until 1971, when he became director of the Urban Design Group within the city’s planning department. In that position, which he held until 1973, Cooper guided planning, design, and zoning issues citywide. From 1973 until 1979, Cooper was the director of the Urban Design Program at Columbia University, and also served on New York City’s planning commission.

Richard Kahan, former chairman and CEO of the Battery Park City Authority, recalls hiring Cooper’s fledgling firm in 1979 to create a plan for the 92-acre area at the southern tip of Manhattan that would become Battery Park City. Cooper’s ultimate challenge was to satisfy stakeholders—including banks, bond lawyers, legislators, developers, and the design community—as the state of New York faced default on the bonds that had been issued to begin developing the land. “Within 90 days, Alex produced a plan that was brilliant for the moment, and as it turns out, for all time,” wrote Kahan in his letter of recommendation. “Using traditional streets, blocks, and materials people had experienced in their favorite parks and public spaces, Alex’s plan began to generate serious developer interest immediately.” Battery Park City extended the city’s existing urban pattern to create a large mixed-use, high-density urban fabric. Likewise, Kahan’s letter describes how the master plan for 42nd St. redevelopment revitalized a deteriorating area that included Times Square, attracting millions in private investment and re-centering New York around this once-faded cosmopolitan hub.

More recently, Cooper collaborated with Frank Gehry, FAIA, on Harvard University’s expansion plans, and on planning for Lincoln Center. “The plan for Lincoln Center was an ideal game board for him,” Gehry wrote in his recommendation letter. “Balancing the interests between the New York City Ballet and the New York City Opera, who share the same building, was a feat worthy of the Cirque du Soleil.”

In his recommendation letter, John Zuccotti, currently U.S. chairman of Brookfield Properties, a global real estate corporation, described Cooper’s expertise as invaluable to the New York City Planning Commission, which Zuccotti chaired during Cooper’s term as commissioner. He praised Cooper’s accomplishments, including the “Housing Quality” section of the Zoning Resolution created by Cooper to incentivize good design practices.

But most important in Zuccotti’s mind were Cooper’s contributions to the reorganization of Ground Zero after the 9/11 attacks. Cooper’s firm prepared a security plan so 30,000 workers could safely return to work in Lower Manhattan, helped select a site for the memorial, and planned which streets should continue through the affected area. All of the work Cooper’s firm completed on the 9/11 site “deeply influenced the ultimate process and outcome over the past 10 years,” wrote Zuccotti. “There are many levels on which to base Alex’s selection for the Thomas Jefferson Award. None is more fitting, nor has greater impact, than his work at Ground Zero.”

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Photo Credits

  • Alexander Cooper, FAIA. Image courtesy of Cooper, Robertson & Partners.
  • Battery Park City, North Residential Area in New York City. Image courtesy of Stan Ries.
  • Battery Park City Concept Drawing; 1980. Image courtesy of Cooper, Robertson & Partners.
  • Stuyvesant High School, Laboratory Wing in New York City. Image courtesy of Jeff Goldberg.
  • Battery Park City, Early evening at North Cove in New York City. Image courtesy of Stan Ries.

Alexander Cooper, FAIA

Category One

Any AIA member, group of members, component, or knowledge community may nominate candidates for category one of the Thomas Jefferson Awards.

Architects licensed in the United States and practicing in the private sector who have made a significant contribution to the quality of public architecture and who have established a portfolio of accomplishment to that end are eligible to be nominated. The nominee shall have evidenced great depth, with a cumulative effect on the quality of public architecture.

Public architecture is defined as any work that is funded in part or wholly by public money.

2012 Thomas Jefferson Award for Public Architecture Jury


Kevin J. Flynn, FAIA, Chair
Kiku Obata & Company, Saint Louis

James Logan Abell, FAIA
Abell & Associates Architects, Ltd., Tempe, Arizona

David Burney, FAIA
NYC Department of Design & Construction, Long Island City, New York

Vergel Lee Gay Jr., AIA
Texas A & M, College Station, Texas

Curtis J. Moody, FAIA
Moody Nolan, Inc., Columbus, Ohio

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