Michael A. Fitts, FAIA, didn’t think he would receive the Thomas Jefferson Award for Public Architecture when he helped launch the prize in 1991. Back then, the American Institute of Architects’ Committee on Public Architecture had a threefold objective: to recognize advocacy and achievement in public architecture; to raise the stature of public architects; and to promote architecture in the mainstream and in the profession. But fittingly, after 36 years pursuing exactly these goals as the state architect of Tennessee, Fitts is being lauded with one of two Jefferson awards at the AIA 2007 National Convention and Design Exposition this week.
Like many architects, Fitts initially was prejudiced against a government career—“It’s hard to get architects interested in government work,” he admits—and calls his first job with government, as a civil engineer for the State of Tennessee, “a stopgap measure.” But meeting then-state architect Clayton Dekle in 1963 changed his mind. “I became enamored with how he was working with a variety of architects and pushing them to produce excellence.” Fitts went on to earn his M.Arch. at the University of Tennessee, returned to the office, and was promoted to the top position in 1971 at age 36. He also earned a third degree, in law, in 1980. Fitts cites the restoration of the State Capitol, headed by John Mesick, AIA, of the firm Mesick Cohen Wilson Baker, as a project of which he’s particularly proud. He adds that high-quality buildings “attract better people who can perform better government service” and influence local architectural standards.