March 2007

The awards celebration that accompanied the annual Accent on Architecture gala, sponsored by the American Architectural Foundation, brought a powerful trifecta of AIA awards this February: Vince Scully delivered a panegyric honoring the Vietnam Veterans Memorial—Homeric in its linguistic economy, unflinching, moving overall. Edward Larrabee Barnes, who received the Gold Medal posthumously, came vividly to life in the words of Harry Cobb and Toshiko Mori, who described both his wide-ranging contributions to design and to the built environment (think of the Crown Center in Kansas City or the Dallas Museum of Art, in addition to the Haystack Mountain School, in Maine) and his innate personal qualities. The third award came with a sense of urgency.

Photo © André Souroujon

The AIA Firm of the Year Award recognizes an important shift in the practice of architecture. While in the past, and even today, the individual has made significant contributions to the built environment, the increasing complexity of contemporary society, coupled with growing demands for conversation and collaboration among design professionals, has brought the shared practice into the limelight. We are witnessing both “stars,” who garner the lion’s share of media attention, and “star firms,” who deserve wider appreciation.

Enter Leers Weinzapfel, a firm that is bridging the gap. Since its founding in 1982, this Boston-based partnership has tackled the most difficult kinds of projects, weaving architecture throughout the infrastructure of the team’s chosen city and beyond, with uncommon clarity and awareness. In projects as complex as the Tobin Bridge Administration Building, a structure that is literally suspended from a bridge approximately 160 feet off the ground, they have grafted their work into, on, around, and through the social character and physical characteristics that surround each project.

As a result, we think of a Leers Weinzapfel project as a distinctive Modernist addition “in relation” to its surroundings, such as the combined Jewish Philanthropies building, grafted into the fabric of downtown Boston, or University Pavilion at the University of Cincinnati, which forms a part of a growing collection of contemporary structures. Leers Weinzapfel buildings rarely shout for the individual spotlight, instead emitting a positive expression of their own, within the larger canvas.

The firm has brought distinction to courthouses, such as the United States Courthouses in Orlando, Florida, or in Worcester, Massachusetts—a challenging building type, made all the more difficult by the multitude of people affected by it. The list of clients for any courthouse is daunting: the commissioning authority (the federal government or a municipal authority), the occupants of the building (the judges, who sometimes act with supererogatory authority), the public (who may be facing the greatest threat, or tragedy, or hope, of their lives), and the community that surrounds them. Each of the firm’s courthouses reflects its users needs, but also shines out above them—something that real architecture can do.

And what is more difficult than adding onto a legacy project, such as it faced at the Harvard University Science Center, originally designed by Josep Luis Sert? Yet the expansion project it conceived and executed complements the original with glowing assurance, all the while interlinking a daunting scientific program, a further example of the firm’s high skill in synthesizing and integrating different periods and people.

As architects, the founding partners established a practice that reflected a collaborative spirit, relying on a partner-level dialogue that informed each work. As their numbers and the commissions have increased, and their partners have grown to include architects Joe Pryse and Josiah Stephenson, the model has held. As teachers, the founding principals have continually reached out to new generations of architects, who then enrich their own practices.

Their design process is noteworthy for combining active listening, synthesis, and what could be characterized as a quiet persistence to achieve results in the most trying circumstances. When expediency might dictate an easier route, they repeatedly return to design excellence on the client’s behalf.

Finally, one key fact, as yet unmentioned, demands noting: Andrea Leers and Jane Weinzapfel are women. Their elevation as founding principals and inclusion on the wall of the American Institute of Architects on the occasion of its sesquicentennial marks the first time in the organization’s first century and a half that a woman, or a woman-owned firm, has had its name inscribed in granite. Their nomination and inclusion is a historic moment, and a signal.

The award goes not to an individual, though our architectural universe has its share of soloists. It goes to a partnership, remarkable for its commitment to excellence and to the people and communities that it serves. The combined practice made it on its own merits; we underscore and cheer its selection. Having cleared the path, there is adequate room on the wall of honor for all architects’ contributions for the years to come. We congratulate and celebrate the selection of Leers Weinzapfel, the 2007 Firm of the Year. Move over, Zaha Hadid!

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