2022 AIA Award for Excellence in Public Architecture

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.

A proud product of the American Midwest, Paul Mankins, FAIA, has leveraged design excellence to craft distinguished spaces for lifelong learning, public art, and sustainability. He has contributed greatly to his hometown of Des Moines, and he has channeled his singular vision in building a portfolio of projects that supports all who live in Iowa. Throughout his career, he has demonstrated a keen understanding of the critical role architects play in addressing the social, environmental, and economic concerns of the communities they serve.

“Paul Mankins is a serious voice in a land full of flash and trendiness. He has positioned himself in the field of architecture as a potent form seeker, public servant, and a socially responsive practitioner, a combination not easily or often found,” wrote Lawrence Scarpa, FAIA, in a letter nominating Mankins for the Award for Excellence in Public Architecture. “Comfortable with aesthetic, practical, political, and functional issues, Paul has mapped an architectural path that is as didactic as it is successful.”

“Paul Mankins is a serious voice in a land full of flash and trendiness. He has positioned himself in the field of architecture as a potent form seeker, public servant, and a socially responsive practitioner, a combination not easily or often found” - Lawrence Scarpa, FAIA

Over three decades Mankins has produced a body of widely recognized public work. His projects transcend functional requirements to present users with memorable spatial experiences steeped in shared civic values. His work has been celebrated with 63 design awards from all levels of AIA, 29 of which were for public architecture.

Following his graduate studies at Yale University, Mankins returned to Iowa in 1991 and immediately began working with the University of Iowa as an architect in the offices of Herbert Lewis Kruse Blunck Architecture. His first assignment there was to create a screen wall that blocked the view of a parking garage. While it was an unglamorous project, the resulting Kautz Plaza did much more than obscure an eyesore; it shaped a small public space for student gatherings. What was envisioned as a simple screen was transformed into a place, a concept that continually surfaces in his work.

Today, Mankins is a principal at Des Moines’ Substance Architecture where he oversees important projects, such as the city’s Principal Riverwalk Pavilion and Pump Station. The pair of small utilitarian buildings along the Des Moines River marks the eastern edge of the city’s historic Court Avenue District and hosts a farmers’ market that draws more than 20,000 people weekly. The project has been a critical element in spurring citizens of Des Moines to reconnect with the river.

Substance has been heavily engaged with the Des Moines Public Library System, delivering a stunning 150,000-square-foot central library that has served as a lynchpin in a re-envisioning of the entire library system. For the remarkably democratic project, a collaboration with David Chipperfield Associates, Mankins conducted public sessions with library patrons from across the city. During the schematic design phase, four alternatives were developed, and patrons were invited to vote for their favorite at their local branch.

“Library use tripled as patrons returned downtown, excited about all the services and resources that now were housed in this contemporary glass structure,” wrote Kay K. Runge, the library systems executive director emeritus. “Many spend their entire day using the children’s department for programs like story hour, utilizing the library’s historical records and extensive reference databases, or simply logging onto the many computers to research the various topics that caught their fancy. Some even come just to read a book!”

Early in his career, Mankins began collaborating with artists to produce integrated site-specific works. In 2004, he was invited to join the Greater Des Moines Public Art Foundation’s board of trustees. Later, he served as its president. Through the organization, Mankins has collaborated with renowned artists such as Siah Armajani, Alice Aycock, Jun Kaneko, and Kerry James Marshall. His efforts have made public art a central component of life in Des Moines and have positioned the city as a national destination for public art.

“Paul Mankins is a conductor at the scale of urban and civic architecture, but also a ‘first chair,’ a virtuoso in his own right,” wrote Marlon Blackwell, FAIA, in support of Mankins’ nomination. “Where so many would be content to enjoy the rewards of ever-increasing private commissions, Paul has dedicated his extraordinary gifts to public architecture and to the greater good.”


Ryan Gann, Assoc. AIA, Chair, Chicago

Shannon Gathings, Assoc. AIA, Duvall Decker Architects, P.A., Ridgeland, Miss.

Joseph Mayo, AIA, Mahlum, Seattle

Katie Swenson, Assoc. AIA, MASS Design Group, Boston

Image credits

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