Four Minnesota architecture firms swept all eight of the Honor Awards presented last week by AIA Minnesota at its 80th annual convention and exhibition.
Three of the awards went to HGA Architects and Engineers (HGA), two each to Snow Kreilich Architects and Vincent James’ firm VJAA and one to Leo A. Daly.
The cited projects represented a variety of building types, including corporate headquarters, educational institutions, a public library, a nonprofit music camp, an apartment complex and a private residence.
Most of the winning buildings are modernist designs with lean rectangular profiles, large expanses of glass and flat roofs. None employ the kind of undulating, curvaceous exteriors that Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry gave to the University of Minnesota’s Weisman Art Museum. Nor do they have such eye-catching features as the gleaming metal nose that the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron added to Walker Art Center in 2005 or the so called “endless bridge” viewing platform that is the signature of French architect Jean Nouvel’s 2006 Guthrie Theater.
Even so, there is an understated quality about the winners that typifies the best of the state’s recent buildings.
“Jurors do say there is a Minnesota aesthetic. I hear that a lot,” said Tim Carl, the lead designer on two of HGA’s award-winning projects — a fine arts center at Macalester College in St. Paul and the renovation of Northrop Auditorium at the University of Minnesota.
Minnesota architects “get a lot of compliments about restraint in design and the quality of construction and detailing,” Carl said. “Work here tends to function really well and to make beautiful use of materials. There’s an honesty about the buildings. They’re not trying too hard, and usually are not overtly sculptural. And there’s a straightforwardness about mixing aesthetics with function.”
Some of the boxy simplicity of the winning designs may have been triggered by budget restraints. Most of the buildings were begun during the 2008-09 recession which, in some cases, required cutbacks in size and materials.
“The simplicity and clarity of both of our projects was driven by their budgets,” said Jennifer Yoos, a principal at VJAA who worked on the firm’s winning designs for the Walker Library in Minneapolis’ Uptown neighborhood and the International Flatwater Centre in Welland, Ontario, an athletic training center built as part of the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto.
When the recession hit, the library’s budget was trimmed by one-third, to $8.4 million, and the Flatwater project began with a very low budget, Yoos said. To save money on the library, VJAA reused part of the foundation from its predecessor on the site. It also covered the outside of the new building in stainless steel roofing tiles that were dipped into a bronzing patina that looked like a custom finish.
“It was an inexpensive way of making them look more refined,” Yoos said. In the end, the firm felt that the building benefited from the budget limits because “it set up restraints that made us use things strategically,” she added.
The winners include two exceptions to the prevailing flat-roofed modernism. They are the peak-roofed Shaker-style cottages that HGA’s Joan Soranno and John Cook designed as musicians’ studios for the Marlboro Music School’s summer festival site in Vermont, and the renovation of Northrop Performing Arts Center at the University of Minnesota. The latter was an $88.2 million redo of an awkward 1929 neoclassical building. The auditorium was gutted, downsized and reconfigured to upgrade acoustics, lobbies, seating, stage amenities and — to the relief of many patrons — bathrooms.
The projects were judged in five categories — architecture, interiors, restoration and renovation, urban design and master planning, small project. They were chosen by a team of national jurors consisting of Angela Brooks, a principal at Brooks + Scarpa in Los Angeles, Mary-Jean Eastman, principal and executive director of Perkins Eastman in New York, and Dan Rockhill, a University of Kansas architecture professor and executive director of Studio 804.