2021 AIA Award for Excellence in Public Architect Recipient

Great public architecture embodies the identity and values of a society. This award, known as the Thomas Jefferson Award, was established in 1992 to recognize the importance of public officials or individuals who by their role and advocacy have furthered the public’s awareness and appreciation of design excellence in public architecture.

Leading the charge in developing social infrastructure, Jennifer Sage, FAIA, demonstrates that public architecture, whether grand or modest, must always be inclusive, sustainable, and democratic. A native of New York, Sage grew up relying on the city’s extensive library system, public pools, and parks. Those early experiences have guided her firm, Sage and Coombe Architects, for nearly 25 years, resulting in a portfolio of some of the most memorable public architecture in New York and beyond.

“In a profession known as much for its flamboyance or its banality, she has developed a model of a truly public architecture look that, as she says, ‘expresses confidence in the future of a place,’” wrote James Stewart Polshek, FAIA, in a letter supporting Sage’s nomination for the AIA Award for Excellence in Public Architecture. “Her projects are as diverse as the city she has principally worked in over the years. Their scale varies from prototypical plans for simple bathhouses to the preservation of historic seaside landscapes. All of her projects are, at the same time, elegantly modest and memorably powerful.”

Sage’s work has dutifully transformed the public realm in New York, chiefly through the New York City Department of Design and Construction’s Design Excellence Initiative. In 2004, Sage and Coombe Architects were selected as one of 24 private firms charged with elevating the quality of the city’s public works. One year later, it was just one of six firms to participate in the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation’s program, too. Since its selection, the firm has helped rebuild the Rockaways in the wake of Superstorm Sandy and tackled countless libraries, firehouses, art centers, and parks. Joy is a theme that runs throughout each project, all noted for their colorful, human-centered designs and budget-friendly approaches.

In 2014, through the initiative, Sage helmed a team charged with creating a new park restroom facility to serve a school playground in the Rockaways. The modest structure’s blue-glazed brick facade echoes the shoreline’s sky, while the upper register windows are clad in stainless steel screen with a cloud motif drawn from a 19th century painting of New York Harbor. The use of aerated autoclaved concrete block helped speed construction as well as increase the exterior wall’s thermal mass. Inside, radiant floor heating and operable windows eliminate the need for mechanical ventilation. The design has been adopted as the model for all future facilities in New York parks, and Sage has overseen nearly 20 more.

“Sage and Coombe was one of the leading voices in the Mayor’s City Park Initiatives, which fast-tracked new and renovated comfort stations and parks to upgrade the standard of services and accessibility available to NYC residents in an abbreviated timeframe,” wrote Mitchell J. Silver, in support of Sage’s nomination. “She has always worked to provide the most efficient and sustainable structures, understanding and accounting for the stresses that buildings serving a high-traffic public use must endure."

Over the course of two decades, Sage led her firm’s redesign of The Noguchi Museum in Queens, now a cultural anchor for Long Island City’s reclaimed waterfront. Housed in a turn-of-the-century lithography factory, the design of the museum celebrates the sculptor’s aesthetic through its careful consideration of the space itself and the works contained within. The project was made possible through both public and private funding, forging a new model that proves public funding can result in powerful and sustainable design.

For the Bronx River Arts Center, housed in a century-old 20,000-square-foot loft building along the eponymous river, Sage and her team led an overhaul of the building, adding a new gallery, classrooms, and public event space. Much of the project’s budget was dedicated to resiliency measures to protect the building from the river’s annual flooding, leaving little for the exterior design. Sage developed a bold and inexpensive plan to wrap the building in its new branding, taking advantage of the building’s visibility from the nearby elevated subway.

Today, Sage is addressing what is arguably her toughest challenge in nearby Newark: the design of a new urban space, a pedestrian bridge that spans the Northeast Corridor rail line and a new train hall at Newark Penn Station. Supported by state and local agencies, the project will help catalyze the transformation of a currently divided city.

“The career path of our profession’s best designers, after a few initial public sector projects, too often moves into corporate, developer, and larger-scale prestigious nonprofit projects like hospitals, universities, and museums,” wrote William L. Rawn, FAIA, in support of Sage’s nomination. “What is remarkable about Jennifer Sage’s career and her firm’s output is that it has continued to focus on truly public sector projects for a broad range of public agencies—in such a variety of diverse neighborhoods.”

Jury

Britt Lindberg, AIA, Chair, Gensler, San Jose, CA

Karen Braitmayer, FAIA, Studio Pacifica, Ltd., Seattle, WA

Antoine Bryant, Assoc. AIA, NOMA, Moody Nolan, Houston, TX

Damaris Hollingsworth, AIA, NOMA, Design by Melo, Golden Valley, MN

Paul Young, City of Memphis, Memphis, TN

Image credits

Jennifer Sage-03

Alexa Hoyer

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Paul Warchol

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Alexa Hoyer

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Peter Aaron

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Chuck Choi