Michael Pyatok, FAIA

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Michael Pyatok, FAIA | 2013 Thomas Jefferson Awards for Public Architecture

By Sara Fernández Cendón

This year’s Thomas Jefferson Award for Public Architecture honors Michael Pyatok, FAIA, an architect who has dedicated his career to the theory and practice of public housing design. Pyatok and the other 2013 Thomas Jefferson Award recipient are celebrated for demonstrating a commitment to quality design that recognizes public buildings as an integral part of the nation’s cultural heritage.

The Thomas Jefferson Award 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: Michael Pyatok, FAIA

Pyatok is receiving a Thomas Jefferson Award for its first category: making a significant contribution to the quality of public architecture while working in the private sector. As the head of Pyatok Architects, based in Oakland, Calif., Pyatok has focused on elevating the quality of design in affordable and low-income housing.

Pyatok grew up in a tenement in an industrial district of Brooklyn, N.Y., and he developed an early interest in low-income and affordable housing. He earned a Bachelor of Architecture degree from Pratt Institute and a Master of Architecture from the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. Between 1966 and 1984, he worked for several firms in Baltimore, New York, Helsinki, and California, where he eventually settled.

In 1984, he founded Pyatok Architects after completing a Loeb Fellowship at Harvard, where he studied housing policy and the role of design in shaping low-income communities. By the time he launched his firm, Pyatok had developed a strong belief in the importance of well-designed affordable and low-income housing. He believed that, much like monuments or public educational facilities, housing projects represent a significant public investment and serve a crucial social function. Although highly visible and heavily used, they’re largely overlooked when they should be carefully designed, maintained, and—after decades of use—proudly restored like other treasured landmarks.

In his recommendation letter, Peter Calthorpe, of Berkeley, Calif.–based Calthorpe Associates, praises Pyatok’s approach to building legacies. “While the demographics of all neighborhoods change with the flow of history across decades, his housing makes the effort to tell future generations about who lived where, when, and why, so each new wave of occupants knows they are not just inhabiting buildings, but the homes of previous generations, encouraging newcomers to find special ways for themselves to also leave their mark.”

An early advocate for density, mixed uses, and proximity to transit and services in low-income communities, Pyatok developed site planning and design strategies to create “cozy communities,” or intimate groupings of neighbors that foster social cohesion among at-risk households.

His approach was quickly recognized as a national model, and in 1995 the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the AIA awarded him grants to write a book about the design of government assisted housing. Co-authored with Tom Jones and William Pettus, AIA, Good Neighbors: Affordable Family Housing is now the standard used by affordable housing developers across the U.S. The NEA also funded a series of workshops conducted by Pyatok and a multidisciplinary team to train leaders around the country on the design of affordable housing.

Today, with a staff of 25, he has designed more than 35,000 dwellings in hundreds of public projects in the U.S. He also has master planned more than 5,000 dwellings in low-income communities in the Philippines and Malaysia. Pyatok’s work has been recognized with more than 150 design awards. HUD, Fannie Mae, and the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials have all recognized his contributions to the design of publicly assisted housing and neighborhood redevelopment.

In her recommendation letter, Oakland Mayor Jean Quan calls Pyatok “a hometown treasure.” She also recognizes the critical role Pyatok played in gaining permits for Fox Courts, a project that introduced 80 units of low-income housing into a larger 800-unit market-rate development in downtown Oakland. “He has brought much respect to this type of public investment, and has helped lower resistance to the idea of mixing a wide range of incomes in the same neighborhood,” she wrote.

In addition to design awards, Pyatok has received awards for leadership and social responsibility. HUD invited him to sit on the board of advisors for its Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing (PATH) program, which monitors successful local housing policies, design strategies, and technologies, before distributing them nationally.

To complement his architectural practice, since 1968 Pyatok has taught architectural design in the U.S. and Mexico. In 2001, Harvard appointed him its Buchsbaum Visiting Professor of Affordable Housing, and for the past 22 years he has been a tenured professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. Claudia Cappio, executive director for the California Housing Finance Agency, regards his devotion to teaching and mentoring as an expression of his commitment to public architecture. “The most meaningful piece of public architecture,” she wrote in a letter supporting his nomination, “may in fact be the one yet to be created by the hundreds of young designers he has influenced.”

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Photo Credit

  • All images courtesy of Michael Pyatok, FAIA, Pyatok Architects.

Michael Pyatok, 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.

More about Michael Pyatok, FAIA

2013 Thomas Jefferson Awards for Public Architecture Jury

  • Steven Spurlock, FAIA, Chair
  • Wnuck Spurlock Architecture
  • Washington, DC
  • James Binkley, FAIA
  • Reston, Virginia
  • Brian F. Cavanaugh, AIA
  • Architecture Building Culture LLC
  • Portland, Oregon
  • Aisha Densmore-Bey, Assoc. AIA
  • Aisha Densmore-Bey, Designer
  • Boston
  • Lonnie Hoogeboom, AIA
  • Houston Downtown Management District
  • Houston

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