What Is the Twenty-Five Year Award?

 John Hill
24. June 2018
The 2017 Twenty-five Year Award winner: I.M. Pei's iconic entrance to the Louvre in Paris (Photo: Koji Horiuchi)
A seminar at the American Institute of Architects' Conference on Architecture last week addressed the controversy surrounding the decision of the jury to not award a 2018 Twenty-five Year Award, the AIA's highest honor for an individual project.
Nearly 26,000 architects attended the 2018 AIA Conference on Architecture -- the largest gathering of architects in the United States ever, according to AIA CEO Robert Ivy -- but only about twenty were in attendance for the seminar "What Is the Twenty-Five Year Award?" This architect/writer attended to learn more about the award and decipher why a building was not selected for the Twenty-Five Year Award this year.

​A quick recap: The Twenty-five Year Award was created in 1969 to recognize "a building that has stood the test of time for 25-35 years and continues to set standards of excellence for its architectural design and significance." Outside of 1970, before the award was made annual, the prestigious award has been given every year -- until January of this year, when it was announced that "the jury did not find a submission that it felt achieved twenty-five years of exceptional aesthetic and cultural relevance while also representing the timelessness and positive impact the profession aspires to achieve."

Our news story on the non-award included a few buildings from the 1983 to 1993 time period that we felt were deserving of the Twenty-five Year Award. Were these buildings considered? What buildings were finalists but not good enough for the award? What was the jury really saying by not giving the award? How does the process work, and how can it change so a non-award doesn't happen again? These were some of the questions on my mind before attending the seminar.

The seminar was led by ​Heather Young and Daniel Garber, both co-chairs of the AIA Twenty-five Year Award Committee. They presented the award's inner workings then John Morris Dixon discussed five award recipients, all in New York City, to give context on worthy projects. Also in attendance were Daniel Lobo, the AIA's Director of Honors & Awards, a 2018 juror, and a committee member. Young acknowledged the controversy that followed the announcement of the non-award, but pointed to a lack of understanding of the award process rather than a backlash against Postmodern architecture, which she denied as a motive of the jury in reaction to speculations at the time of the news.

Process

Beyond the subjective criteria spelled out above, the Twenty-five Year Award has three objective qualifications for nominations:
  1. must have been completed 25-35 years ago
  2. must have been designed by a US-licensed architect at the time of the project’s completion
  3. must be in a substantially completed form, in good condition, and not fundamentally altered from its original intent​
Nominations can come from state and local AIA chapters, the AIA Knowledge Community, AIA members, and the AIA Twenty-five Year Award Committee, which consults with architecture curators, critics, and writers. For the 2018 award, 230 projects were nominated, but only 15 were selected by the committee (it "identifies and encourages well-qualified submissions") to advance to the next stage. Following is an intensive submission process that involves letters of recommendation, drawings, and other documentation meant to convince the jury that the building is a winner. At this point the committee becomes more of a cheerleader and is removed from the actual submissions, which numbered less than 10 (no exact number was given), not the full 15 selected by the committee.

A couple pieces stand out in this process: the committee selections and the intensiveness of the submissions. The first has a huge bearing on what projects the jury will eventually see and deem worthy (only 6.5% advanced), while the second can discourage submissions from actually being completed, espcially if architects have submitted the project already and lost. Aiding in the first are term limits on the committee members, meant to maintain freshness​. In terms of submissions, their depth and thoroughness are necessary for expressing the importance and qualities of the buildings, but the number being narrowed from 15 to nearly half points to the need for more buildings to be advanced and "cheerleaded" by the committee in the future.

Confidentiality

Although the seminar was enlightening in terms of the Twenty-five Year Award process, it was frustrating when it came to the myriad layers of confidentiality. What were the 230 projects? Confidential. What about the non-winning submissions? Confidential. What about committee discussions? Confidential. Without the ability to talk about any particulars of the Twenty-five Year "non-Award" it was impossible to learn anything beyond the process and how it impacts the winner each year.

Daniel Logo, who wasn't working for the AIA when the news of this year's non-award was announced in January, had a couple good points though:
  1. The non-award drew extra attention to the Twenty-five Year Award, bringing it more press than the news of a winner would have garnered.
  2. The non-award expressed a sense of dignity in the award, such that it wouldn't be given to a building because it was one of eight or nine submitted that year.
While the seminar did not answer all of my questions, it made me optimistic that a winner will probably be named next year, since the AIA and its Twenty-five Year Award Committee don't want a repeat of 2018.

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