The future of the Twenty-five Year Award: Celebrating buildings that improve
A former COTE chair envisions a future where longevity is honored for different reasons
August 11 is the deadline to submit for AIA’s Twenty-five Year Award, which “showcases buildings that set a precedent. It is conferred on a building that has stood the test of time for 25-35 years and continues to set standards of excellence for its architectural design and significance.” Submitted projects must have been substantially completed between 1983 and 1993; must have been designed by a US-licensed architect; and must not be fundamentally altered: “Entries must demonstrate excellence in function, both in its original form and by today’s standards.”
It may be time to ask, “What kind of longevity are we celebrating?”
In July’s Architect Magazine, Kim O’Connell’s “Taking the Long View” suggests several AIA Committee on the Environment (COTE) Top Ten recipients that may receive this award in the future. As a former chair of that group, I hope that will occur. The COTE awards program was founded in 1997 to celebrate a more robust definition of design excellence, one that included how well a building coexists with the natural environment. Her suggestion inspires additional consideration of the award itself: How is the Twenty-five Year Award addressing sustainability, resilience, and social equity? Put another way: what were we building 25 to 35 years ago that would seem a good precedent now?
Recently, AIA published its values, which include equity, human rights, community, sustainability, and resilience. In that context, how does AIA define excellence today? What precedents do we intend to celebrate? The Twenty-five Year Award is well-positioned to demonstrate a shift in the industry, the profession, and the profession’s American association because it purports to celebrate architecture with staying power—it is framed to honor design that sustains. What could be better suited to distinguish the building arts from their fine art cousins as a form that not only can but should evolve over time?
The Twenty-five Year Award has gone to projects of various scales and types over the years, but typically they are public, mid-sized, and iconic in nature. This year, it was the Grand Louvre - Phase I by Pei Cobb Freed & Partners. Other recipients include multiple Louis Kahn buildings and high modernist works by SOM. In 2016, EHDD’s Monterey Bay Aquarium received the award; that seemed like a positive departure, as it had less of a formal statement than a public, urban one. It was a building that shaped a place over time. Given this step forward, how will we come to define good design as it spans decades: based on looks and contribution to community, or perhaps based on performance?
The buildings we cherish are the ones we maintain and adapt as they age and as use demands evolve.
In the era of the Paris agreement, and the current administration’s intention to withdraw from this worldwide move toward a thrivable future, the imperative for more rigorous standards seems clear. Buildings demand resilience and adaptability by design. AIA’s 2030 Commitment has over 400 signatory firms that have already formally embraced the need for pEUI reductions and a low-carbon future. The American public believes in climate change; shouldn’t its architecture reflect that? Will the public outcry over the administration’s announcement about withdrawing from the Paris agreement impact the design world?
The Twenty-five Year Award is well suited to highlight design thinking of the highest level, including but not limited to the kind of anticipatory design strategies that embrace time as a dimension of architectural expression. Anticipatory design, expressed first by Buckminster Fuller in the context of his theories of design science, is today understood as design that anticipates the needs of the person who is using or occupying the design—and adapts accordingly.
In architecture, this is often used to mean anticipating future uses: designing a corporate office to become housing, for example. Or anticipating future technologies: creating the infrastructure for adaptations like PVs. Altering a building from a mediocre energy performer to a stellar one (net zero or net positive) should be celebrated, and failing to do so should not be recognized. That is happening with many of the 1980s- and 1990s-era buildings now “up” for this honor, even as their facades are substantially unaltered.
Revisiting the notion of alternations might help this award become a more potent recognition, one that honors the malleable—rather than fixed—nature of our most durable and lovable buildings. The buildings we cherish are the ones we maintain and adapt as they age and as use demands evolve. Surely a corporate headquarters, elegantly adapted to neighborhood housing needs, would be worthy of celebration.
Kira Gould is a writer, communications strategist, Allied AIA member, and a former chair of the AIA COTE Advisory Group. Through her consultancy, Kira Gould CONNECT, she provides strategic communications guidance to leaders designing, developing, and building the sustainable future.