VJAA Receives 2012 AIA Architecture Firm Award

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VJAA | 2012 AIA Architecture Firm Award Recipient

By Zach Mortice, Managing Editor, AIArchitect

The American Institute of Architects Board of Directors on Dec. 8 awarded the 2012 AIA Architecture Firm Award to VJAA (Vincent James Associates Architects), the modest Minnesota firm respected for its consistently rigorous approach to research-driven form-making. The AIA Architecture Firm Award, given annually, is the highest honor the AIA bestows on an architecture firm, and recognizes a practice that has consistently produced distinguished architecture for at least 10 years. VJAA will be honored at the AIA 2012 National Convention and Design Exposition in Washington, D.C.

AIA President Clark Manus, FAIA, notified firm principal Vincent James, FAIA, by telephone immediately after the Board made its decision. "Thank you very much," James said. "The AIA has been wonderful, and we depend on it in many ways. This is really just amazing."

Searching for embedded logic

Founded only in 1995, VJAA has already won acclaim for the way it uses architectural research to create buildings uniquely and empirically attuned to their geography, climate, history, and culture. The firm’s three principals—Vincent James, FAIA; Jennifer Yoos, AIA; and Nathan Knutson, AIA—have led VJAA on a wide-ranging search for the embedded logic of projects: the essential markers of place, function, materiality, and craft that lie beneath each work and serve as an armature for its development.

For a moderately sized firm in a struggling economy, spending time and money on these kinds of open-ended explorations could be a risky gambit, but Minneapolis-based VJAA has made it an explicit part of its practice. One area this research has focused on is material innovations, including technologies that combine structural and skin elements, surfaces that filter specified amounts of sound and light, and systems that temper the ambient climate. Another area of intensive research for VJAA is digital practice tools, like energy models. With digital energy modeling, the firm’s latest projects have started their design path with projections of how they’ll perform in a real-world environment, and these buildings are frequently cited for their pioneering sustainability. One recent project, the Charles Hostler Student Center at American University in Beirut, Lebanon, received a 2009 COTE Top 10 award, but this isn’t the only honor VJAA has been celebrated with recently: ARCHITECT Magazine named VJAA the top award-winning firm in 2010.

For VJAA, this research has a much broader purpose than coming up with new gadgets to impress prospective clients. Most importantly, James and his colleagues use it to revise and refine the design process itself. From the firm’s award submission packet: “The critical function of our research is as much to provoke a rethinking or retooling of our process project-by-project as it is to inform the specific content of our work.”

It’s a design philosophy noted by previous winners of the AIA Firm Award, including David Miller, FAIA, of Miller Hull Partnership. “Theirs is an archetypal example of a reflective practice where they are constantly reevaluating the process with the undertaking of each new enterprise,” he wrote in a letter of recommendation.

Until relatively recently, VJAA was a regional practice centered in the Upper Midwest, but its research has allowed it to create buildings that expertly respond to diverse geographies and climates in locations as varied as New Orleans and the Middle East. This research doesn’t only look forward to new levels of building performance and function; it also helps the firm look backwards. VJAA applied this practice approach in additions, renovations, and interventions to several Marcel Breuer–designed buildings on the Collegeville, Minn., campus of St. John’s University. In these mid-20th-century Brutalist buildings made of cast-in-place concrete, VJAA sensitively added new views, public spaces, and circulation routes, preserving the unique Modernist legacy of the campus and the work of an AIA Gold Medalist. Similarly, the firm’s international projects have explored how vernacular building traditions can be re-imagined with contemporary levels of function and performance.

“VJAA creates a place- and purpose-specific architecture founded on broad societal, technological, and artistic values,” wrote Andrea Leers, FAIA, of 2007 AIA Firm Award recipient Leers Weinzapfel Associates, in a recommendation letter. “Their work eloquently demonstrates the creative possibilities of joining environmental innovation, material exploration, and a thoughtful and economical response to site and program.”

Refinement and restraint

True to their Midwestern roots, VJAA’s aesthetic is unassuming, clean, subtle, and contextual; its buildings are unfailingly polite and friendly, no matter where in the world they’re located. “In an era frequently characterized by architectural indulgence and excess, VJAA is creating architecture of refinement and restraint,” wrote Leers in her recommendation letter.

A few of VJAA’s most notable projects include:

The Charles Hostler Student Center in Beirut, Lebanon, which organizes a village of contextual masonry and glass student amenity buildings around a radial “street” plan designed for ideal solar orientation, thus creating shaded microclimates. The facility uses a multitude of active (as well as passive) sustainability strategies like solar power, green roofs, and geothermal cooling.

The Type/Variant House in Wisconsin, a collection of richly textured wood-framed and copper-clad rectilinear volumes arranged on a rural site asymmetrically, which use their unique geometry to enhance the display of art objects in a sequential pattern.

The Lavin-Bernick Center for University Life at Tulane University in New Orleans, a student center addition and renovation that uses layers of porch-like screening and shading to facilitate the circulation of daylight and natural ventilation.

The Minneapolis Rowing Club Building in Minneapolis, a simple building that lets light pour in from a canted top corner window, illuminating a parallel series of interior roof trusses that serve as a visual metaphor for the teamwork associated with rowing; oars pushing their craft forward in lockstep.

Like all the best VJAA projects, these buildings offer a rare gift: expertly balanced designs situated at a precise intersection between expression and context, offering new ways for users to experience their site. “What I admire most about VJAA is the resoluteness of their work at every scale,” wrote Marlon Blackwell, FAIA, in a recommendation letter. “Whether it is at the scale of the city, the scale of the building, or the scale of the hand, each project is developed as a comprehensive, integrated system of determined relationships.” Whether it’s a simple house addition’s way of re-centering the domestic sphere toward better views, sunlight, and summer breezes, or a college campus’ second opportunity to define its identity through the evolution of the work of a Modern architecture master, VJAA has perfected the art of envisioning its buildings as vehicles to fully and truly experience a place.

Recent Related

Photo Credits

  • The Dayton House in Minneapolis all images courtesy of VJAA
  • The Lavin-Bernick Center for University Life at Tulane in New Orleans
  • The Charles Hostler Student Center at American University of Beirut in Lebanon
  • St. John’s Abbey and Monastery Chapter House and Chapel in Collegeville, Minnesota
  • The Minneapolis Rowing Club Building in Minneapolis

(Photo credits at bottom of page)

VJAA is the 49th AIA Architecture Firm Award recipient.

In recognition of VJAA's legacy to architecture, its name will be chiseled into the granite Wall of Honor in the lobby of the AIA headquarters in Washington, D.C.

VJAA has previously received:

  • 14 state and local AIA Awards
  • 9 AIA National Awards

Visit the AIA Honors and Awards website
Past Architecture Firm Award recipients
Go to the current issue of AIArchitect

2012 Gold Medal and Firm Award Advisory Jury

Susan Chin, FAIA, Chair
NYC Dept. Of Cultural Affairs, New York City

Lane J. Beougher, AIA
Office of the State Architect, Columbus, Ohio

Robert J. Berkebile, FAIA
BNIM Architects, Kansas City, Missouri

Mary A. Burke, AIA
Burke Design and Architecture PLLC, New York City

Steve L. Dumez, FAIA
Eskew+Dumez+Ripple Architects, New Orleans

Arvind Manocha
Los Angeles Philharmonic Association, Los Angeles

Elizabeth Chu Richter, FAIA
Richter Architects, Corpus Christi, Texas

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