Architect Numbers Dwindle at American Academy Honors

Event: American Academy of Arts and Letters 2007 Awards Ceremony
Location: American Academy of Arts and Letters, 05.15.07
Organizers: American Academy of Arts and Letters

American Academy of Arts and Letters

Courtesy American Academy of Arts and Letters

While sparsely represented in the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ membership and awards in general, architects were even further under-represented at this year’s awards ceremony. Every year, architectural achievement is celebrated at the Academy along with figures in literature, fine arts, and musical composition.

Among the nine inductees to the Academy membership this year (a number determined by those of the fixed membership who are no longer with us), the sole architect was Billie Tsien, AIA, who has been producing remarkable buildings with her partner-husband Tod Williams, FAIA. We all know their American Folk Art Museum on West 53rd Street, and some of us have had the pleasure of experiencing their Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla and Phoenix Art Museum. All their work has been joint, but Academy memberships can only be held by individuals, and Tsien is certainly a deserving individual.

Receiving the Academy’s annual Arnold W. Brunner Memorial Prize for Architecture was Eric Owen Moss, FAIA, known mainly for his idiosyncratic adaptations of old industrial buildings in the L.A. suburb of Culver City for the use of high-tech and otherwise hip companies. His adventurous scheme for renovating the Queens Museum of Art was dropped two years ago, and Grimshaw/Ammann and Whitney commissioned for a more modest redo.

Among this year’s 20 winners of Academy Awards (any academy has a right to this phrase) were three architects. Wes Jones of L.A. was cited for works that “celebrate the materials and methods of industrialized production while transforming them into performative instruments that illuminate and give meaning to the human condition.” (How’s that for archi-speak?) Thomas Kundig, FAIA, of Seattle was honored for elegant reinterpretation of Northwest materials, details, and forms (to freely interpret the official jargon). Lebbeus Woods, “an architect-visionary” (says his citation) has long been producing images that are essentially art works on architectural themes.

Among visual artists recognized this year by the Academy was one who has carried out remarkably successful collaborations with architects, Martin Puryear. Recipient of this year’s Gold Medal for Sculpture, Puryear has worked beautifully with Mitchell/Giurgola Architects and Michael Van Valkenburgh on the lobby and courtyard of the New School for Social Research and on the lighting pylons for the Battery Park City waterfront. His work in the current Academy show is in itself worth the trip to 156 Street.

While the membership roster includes such names as Pei, Cobb, Meier, Eisenman, Gwathmey, Gehry, Pelli, and Polshek among its 16 architects, the only ones visible were the new inductee Tsien, the ever-energized Hugh Hardy, FAIA, and Steven Holl, AIA, the Academy member who very effectively presented this year’s architectural honors. If architects want to maintain their standing in this “arts and letters” organization, more of them ought to be visibly involved.

All architects recognized this year have mounted exhibitions at the Academy’s annual show, on view at 633 West 155 Street through June 10 (Thu-Sun, 1-4pm).