The Minneapolis architectural firm VJAA has won the top national award in its field, the "Firm Award" presented annually by the American Institute of Architects.

Headed by Vincent James and two associates, the 14-member firm is the first in Minnesota to get the award, which was announced Thursday in Washington, D.C.

"The biggest firms in the world have all won it, so this is quite a big deal," said Scott Frank, AIA spokesperson. Previous winners include Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown (1985), I.M. Pei (1968) and SOM (Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, 1962).

Given annually to just one U.S. firm, the AIA Architecture Firm Award more typically goes to groups located on the East or West coasts or Chicago.

"A lot of things we've done locally have made this possible," said Jennifer Yoos, a VJAA partner with Nathan Knutson and James.

VJAA's high-profile Minnesota projects include the Minneapolis Rowing Club, which the AIA cited for the angled windows and unusual roof trusses "that serve as a visual metaphor for the teamwork ... associated with rowing." The success of that 2001 building led to a 2005 boathouse at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and to a rowing and kayaking facility now on the drawing board for the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto.

The AIA also noted VJAA's environmentally sensitive designs for student centers in Beirut, Lebanon, and at Tulane University in New Orleans, and for a copper-clad Wisconsin home. Its other projects include a pavilion and chapel renovation at St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minn.; residences in Minneapolis, Chicago and New York, and a sleek modernist cabin on Gunflint Lake in northern Minnesota. Its streamlined 1997 home for Kenneth and Judy Dayton overlooking Lake of the Isles is already a modernist icon.

Projects in the works include a new Walker Library for Hennepin Avenue in south Minneapolis and a new entrance plaza for the Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota.

The AIA also announced its highest individual award, a gold medal, to New York architect Steven Holl, who designed the University of Minnesota's award-winning 1990 College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture building.

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431