2021 Young Architects Award Recipient

Emerging talent deserves recognition. The AIA Young Architects Award honors individuals who have demonstrated exceptional leadership and made significant contributions to the architecture profession early in their careers.

In line with his agrarian childhood in rural central Missouri, Matthew Thornton, AIA, approaches design with a cheerful willingness to exceed expectations even with limited means. With a love of art, music, and the natural world that was instilled in him by his parents, educators by trade, Thornton has channeled his lifelong passion for design to create some of the most unconventional yet beautiful schools for students in rural Ozark communities.

After completing his studies at Drury University’s Hammons School of Architecture, Thornton began his professional career in 2004 while simultaneously beginning his young family. In search of a firm that embraces design excellence and the enrichment of the human spirit, he joined Dake Wells Architecture, based in Springfield, Missouri, in 2008. In the wake of the Great Recession, he was critical in expanding the firm from just three people to its current staff size of 27. Currently a senior architect with the firm, he oversees its technology and BIM practices and mentors his peers in their pursuit of high-quality work.

"Matthew Thornton creates a large and unforgettable presence—while he is tall and his voice is deep, he is approachable, conversational, and quick to smile and laugh."

In the early days of his time at Dake Wells, Thornton discovered his love for K-12 education projects. His uncanny ability to eschew conventional thinking regularly elevates projects out of the realm of the ordinary, and, as an ardent futurist, his technical expertise and critical analysis ensure an easy route to conceptual problem solving. His projects, such as Reeds Spring Middle School, which is tucked into a hillside rather than built on bulldozed site, have been celebrated with 14 design awards, including four national awards. His vision played a significant role in Dake Wells’ inclusion, in the 13th spot, on Architect magazine’s top 50 design firms list in 2019.

“His projects at Dake Wells display a sober sense of solid design, understated poetry, and responsibility toward the user and the public,” wrote Alcibiades P. Tsolakis, professor and dean at Louisiana State University’s College of Art and Design, in a letter supporting Thornton’s nomination for the Young Architect Award. “The economic and cultural context of Southwest Missouri make this achievement even more outstanding since limited resources require exceptional skill, wisdom, and an elevated sense of civic duty to produce the outcomes such as the educational facilities included in his portfolio.”

Thornton’s drive to serve, all while raising five children ranging in age from 4 to 14, resulted in his long engagement with AIA Springfield. When the chapter’s annual holiday party began to sag, only attended by board members, he volunteered to reinvigorate it. After recruiting a number of other young members, he moved the event to Missouri State University’s game center and drastically increased participation. When AIA Springfield was selected to host the Central States Conference in 2014, when Thornton was chapter president, he led the all-volunteer chapter in creating an incredibly successful event that resulted in nearly $80,000 in profit. Those funds laid the groundwork for the establishment of the Springfield Foundation for Architecture, which provides scholarships and other financial outreach initiatives.

While serving as AIA Springfield’s past president, Thornton allied himself with a number of local building envelope professionals to found the Building Enclosure Council’s Ozark-Springfield Chapter. The group convenes stakeholders from all sectors and disciplines in an effort to create better buildings. Thornton is a founding board member and has also served as treasurer and AIA liaison.

“Matthew Thornton creates a large and unforgettable presence—while he is tall and his voice is deep, he is approachable, conversational, and quick to smile and laugh. In what might be an offbeat observation, I have always believed his design work matches this demeanor,” wrote Karen Cordes Spence, PhD, AIA, AIA Springfield’s 2020 president, in a letter nominating Thornton for the Young Architect Award. “The structures have an ability to stand proudly as part of the Midwestern region, embracing their locations with an optimism about the future.”


Peter Kuttner, FAIA , Chair, Cambridge Seven Associates, Inc., Boston, Massachusetts

John Castellana, FAIA,  TMP Architecutre, Inc., Bloomfield Hill, Michigan

Frances Halsband, FAIA, Kliment Halsband Architects, New York, New York

Ivenue Love-Stanley, FAIA, Stanley Love-Stanley, Atlanta, Georgia

Ryan McEnroe, AIA, Quinn Evans, Washington, D.C

Chris-Annmarie Spence, AIA, Wkarch, Chicago, Illinois

Image credits

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Gayle Babcock

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