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In late June, just over 12,000 people attended the first AIA convention since 2019, in Chicago. Besides being back, in a great city, after the Covid hiatus, what made this year’s convention notable was that three years’ worth of AIA honorees were all celebrated together. And the spotlight on those architects happens to signal real promise for the profession going forward.

For most of its century-long history, the AIA Gold Medal was bestowed on white men, of course, often of a venerable age. When pressure mounted in the last decade to diversify the award, the AIA seemed only able to come up with architects who were already dead—Julia Morgan in 2014 and Paul Revere Williams in 2017.

But this year, the trio of Gold Medal awards reflected profound engagement in our most urgent problems, by honoring architects whose work is rooted not in epic design but in a sense of humanity and civic purpose. Marlon Blackwell, FAIA, the 2020 winner, has built a practice in Fayetteville, Arkansas, that is known for its public work for schools, clinics, and parks—and he takes particular pride in bringing the best possible design to low-budget projects. The 2022 honorees, Angela Brooks, FAIA, and Larry Scarpa, FAIA, of the Los Angeles office Brooks + Scarpa, similarly are admired for modestly scaled work, particularly innovative, affordable, and low-cost housing. (This is the only couple to win the Gold Medal besides Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown in 2016.) And the 2021 Gold Medal honored Ed Mazria, FAIA, not for architectural works but to acknowledge his leadership in sustainability—especially his 2030 Challenge initiative, pushing for all new construction and renovation to be carbon neutral by the end of the decade.

The same values were mirrored in the Architecture Firm Awards for the last three years. The 2020 winner, Architecture Research Office (ARO), is a relatively small New York firm that deeply engages in research for designs carefully keyed to the program and client. In New York, it has designed the Brooklyn Bridge Park Boathouse for the community, and the midtown Congregation Beit Simchat Torah synagogue for a large LGBT congregation. The 2021 firm, Moody Nolan, headquartered in Columbus, Ohio, is the biggest African American–led office in the U.S., and has a firm culture rooted in collaboration and fostering diversity in its workforce and client base. And MASS Design Group, founded in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has a remarkable body of work in Rwanda and elsewhere in the developing world, inspired by local materials and construction methods, as well as projects designed for social justice here in the U.S. In this issue, RECORD explores the firm’s Rwanda Institute for Conservation Agriculture, which provides education in sustainable farming.

Cathleen McGuigan.

Cathleen McGuigan, editor-in-chief of Architectural RecordPhoto © Jenna-Beth Lyde

The Gold Medalists and honored firms took over Chicago’s Crown Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe—the Gold Medal winner in 1960—to celebrate what may be a new day in architecture.

The AIA convention closed with a memorable keynote from onetime Chicago resident Barack Obama. The audience learned that the former president once considered a career in architecture and that his favorite buildings include the Sydney Opera House. He briefly discussed the Barack Obama Presidential Library, designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects | Partners (TWBTA) of New York, now under construction. The project has generated controversy for taking a large bite out of a public park on the south side of Chicago. But Obama argued in favor of the “power of place”—that is, the power to animate a neighborhood that has suffered from disinvestment. “The goal has not been to build a mausoleum,” he said (“I’m not dead yet,” he joked), but to create a laboratory for social change.

In the Obama White House, there were stickers around that said “Fight Cynicism”—and that attitude could well be applied to the work of architects. Williams and Tsien might have similar stickers in their office: among their recently completed projects is a handsome expansion of the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, a highly popular public space in Grand Rapids. It’s a project that exemplifies what they have said in the past—that they believe “architecture is an act of profound optimism.”

All the architects honored at the AIA Convention this year embody that spirit.