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“Unmediatized” Architecture: VJAA Wins AIA’s Top Prize for Firms

By Andrew Blauvelt

When the American Institute of Architects announced this week that Minneapolis-based VJAA is the recipient of its prestigious 2012 Architecture Firm of the Year Award, the news seemed, frankly, inevitable.

Founded in 1995, the firm—headed by principals Vincent James, Jennifer Yoos, and Nathan Knutson—is young by architecture standards, but nevertheless meets the minimum 10 years of practice required for consideration of the award. This abbreviated tenure is a testament to a relatively small body of built work that has had an outsized impact— garnering numerous awards along the way. In fact, very few of the firm’s projects have not won some kind of accolade, a feat acknowledged by Architect magazine, which listed VJAA as one of the top 50 firms in the United States in 2010, with a first place finish in the awards category.

What makes the work of VJAA’s architects so receptive for recognition? Undoubtedly, there are many possible answers to this question. But we can safely rule out a few of the more obvious ones: they do not project the celebrity aura of the “starchitect,” nor do they dutifully reproduce a particularly recognizable style. In other words, despite all the awards, they do not intentionally cultivate a mediatized persona about their practice. If there is any consistent factor about the work, it is to be found in the recurring words often ascribed to it, such as: “research,” “process,” “context,” “subtle,” “refined,” “sustainable,” and “reflexive.” Most of these terms can also suffer from overuse and risk becoming clichés in architectural discourse when one is left searching for meaning or groping for analysis.

For VJAA, the terms take on their greatest resonance within the context of specific projects. Their technical research on energy use and environmental systems for a new student center at Tulane University in post-Katrina New Orleans takes an aspiration for sustainability and makes it a context-specific reality, creating innovative spaces that perform like microclimates, which in turn affect the movement and behavior of people. The wood and steel truss supports that run the length of their Minneapolis Rowing Club Boathouse (2001) reference the rhythmic elegance of the sport. This kind of “content” is not a representational gimmick, but rather an analogous, repetitive form whose use is as efficient as the oarsmen’s stroke. Their Dayton Residence in Minneapolis is a beautifully sited home perched above a lake, embodying a refined material palette and exquisite craftsmanship—all expressed in a modern language that is sufficiently varied to be unmistakably contemporary.

In its recent winning submission for rethinking the pedestrian and transit bridge that crosses the Mississippi River and links the East and West Bank campuses of the University of Minnesota, VJAA together with architects HouMinn and artist Diane Willow, tapped into their decades-long research on skyways and urban circulation systems. Their proposed insertion of various programmatic options—screening and lounge areas, for instance—into this most functional and utilitarian of spaces creatively disrupts the “point A to point B” trajectory, suggesting the possibilities of inhabitation. VJAA are also the lead researchers for a forthcoming publication and exhibition organized by the Walker Art Center on the topic of skyways from both a contemporary and historical perspective.

VJAA is among a handful of firms in which a commitment to research fuels inquiry not only into specific projects, as one might expect, but also across a body of work. Here, research is not merely a box to check in the dutiful completion of a project, but rather defines a position or an approach to practice. It’s not procedural but rather philosophical. As VJAA explains it: “Research can inform a project on many levels, from the broadest urban scale to the intimate scale of materials. It leads to collaboration with other disciplines and the assimilation of seemingly disparate forms of content. In the end, research helps us bypass the reductive processes that result in more predictable outcomes and generates within our work the possibility of many different readings.”

What is rather remarkable is the fact that VJAA has not yet produced a major public building in the Twin Cities, despite all the attention and commissions it receives both nationally and internationally. Is this the all-too-common case of overlooking hometown talent in favor of searching out something more far afield? The good news is that this situation looks likely to change, as the firm has been selected to design the new Walker Library in the Uptown neighborhood for Hennepin County.

Rendering of VJAA’s winning design for the Weisman Plaza Design Competition, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis

The Minneapolis Rowing Club Boathouse, 2001

VJAA’s monograph, published by Princeton Architectural Press

Lavin-Bernick Center for University Life, Tulane University, New Orleans, 2007

Interior view of the Minneapolis Rowing Club Boathouse

The Dayton House, 1997, Minneapolis

Rendering of VJAA’s winning design for the Weisman Plaza Design Competition, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis