2019 Thomas Jefferson Award for Public Architecture Recipient
At every turn in his career, James McCullar, FAIA, has remained steadfastly dedicated to the advancement of housing and community design. In his private practice and his service to the AIA, McCullar has worked to provide innovative affordable housing and social interventions for urban communities that are significantly underserved by architect-led design.
“Looking at Jim’s portfolio of accomplishment, it is clear that his work is almost unparalleled in combining social and environmental concerns,” wrote Feniosky A. Peña-Mora, the Edwin Howard Armstrong Professor of Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics at Columbia University, in support of McCullar’s nomination for the Thomas Jefferson Award for Public Architecture. “His rehab, adaptive reuse, and infill housing, often on abandoned sites, have for more than 30 years contributed to neighborhood revitalization.”
After cutting his teeth in the offices of I.M. Pei & Partners—and his receipt of a Fulbright Fellowship for urban design that sent him to Paris—McCullar opened his own offices, James McCullar Architecture, PC, in 1979. Filling a much-needed role in New York, which at the time was experiencing rising abandonment rates and population drain following the financial collapse of 1975, his firm’s first project was a renovation of two walkup tenement buildings in the South Bronx. The project received an AIA New York housing award and was heralded as “a new kind of public housing” by The New York Times.
Since then his portfolio has swelled with work that elevates the design standards for affordable housing and facilities that serve the community. In Jamaica, Queens, his design for Jamaica Market combated the neighborhood’s decline and created an unofficial town center. McCullar’s LEED Gold modular supportive housing in the Bronx—nicknamed “the LEGO Building” by residents who observed the construction process—offers 63 studio units for the formerly homeless and returning veterans. The first new building in an aging manufacturing district, its program includes offices for resident services and vegetable gardens for a resident-driven fresh food program.
Through all of his work—whether modernizing New York’s public housing for the municipal housing authority or transforming problematic urban sites—McCullar has established a new image of social equity that makes public housing indistinguishable from market-rate housing. His efforts have been widely celebrated with design awards: He received the AIA New York Pioneer in Housing Award in 2006 and the AIA New York State Henry Hobson Richardson Award for public architecture from in 2018.
“James McCullar's career is an example of what can be accomplished when architects take the lead on quality housing and sustainability,” wrote David Burney, FAIA, in support of McCullar’s nomination. “The quality of his work defies the constraints of low budgets and difficult government procurement processes. His commitment to the goal of quality housing and sustainability makes him well-deserving of the Thomas Jefferson Award.”
During his tenure as president of AIA New York, McCullar bolstered the chapter’s support for then-Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC 2030, which laid out the need for sustainable growth to accommodate an expected one million new New York residents. After participating in back-to-back United Nations conferences, he co-founded the Consortium for Sustainable Urbanization. A 501(c)(3) nonprofit, CSU’s mission is to promote a better understanding of sustainable and resilient design in the planning of the nation’s cities. Since its formation, in 2010, CSU has worked closely with the United Nations Human Settlements Programme to develop the New Urban Agenda, adopted by the AIA last year.
“Thomas Jefferson encouraged his colleagues to take action on their ideas, saying, ‘Action will delineate and define you,’” Aliye Pekin Celik, CSU president, wrote of McCullar. “Jim takes this motto to heart, listening to learned discourse and animated debate, but, at the end of the day, in his quiet but forceful way bringing consensus to the room on what needs to be done. Like Jefferson, Jim makes clear how architecture is an essential element in defining our cultural identity and sustainable future.”