Keep Your Damn Mask On! It’s the 2021 Architecture and Design Awards

By Alexandra Lange and Mark Lamster

We’ve been doing this for twelve years now, and this was, without question, the hardest it’s ever been to come up with these “awards.” The year was grim from the start, and architecture was deeply implicated. It kicked off in January with the desecration of the Capitol, in June we had the catastrophic collapse of the Surfside condo tower, in August the Vessel closed after a fourth suicide, September brought the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, and through it all the pandemic has marched its way through the Greek alphabet. So yeah, it’s been a rough twelve months.

But it is the holiday season, a time for cheer, and we’re back with our review of the best and worst in architecture and design for 2021. And so … on to the fake prizes!

Is There Any Damn Place to Sit Down Here Award? To Diller’s Folly, a.k.a. Golf Tee Island, a.k.a. Little Island. The thing cost $250m and there’s not a bench in shade to be found. But lord is there a lot of fencing.

B. F. Skinner Design Award: To Charles Munger, the nonagenerian advocate of windowless dorms. Keep your money.

The Charles Munger Award for Public Policy: New York Mayor-elect Eric Adams plans to reinstitute solitary confinement. WTF.

Gold Metal Gold Medal: NADAA’s Site 4 graduate student housing tower at MIT is a shimmery addition to the Boston skyline.

Pyrite Prize: The American Museum of Natural History replaced its beloved PoMo Hall of Gems and Minerals with a generic gallery.

The Wasmuth Prize: To John Hill’s Buildings In Print, a book about architecture books. Next: a book about books about architecture books?

The Von Trapp Medal for Transit Oriented Development: Perkins + Will’s Singing Hills Recreation Center in Dallas was one of our favorite things this year.

Oh Yeah, Maya Lin Award: To Maya Lin, whose Neilson Library at Smith reminded us again that, yeah, Maya Lin is a boss. P.S.: Where’s her Pritzker?

What the Hell? Award: To Grapevine Main, the kitsch-tastic historic train station that’s neither historic nor a train station.

Randy Newman Prize for Loving LA: To photographer Wayne Thom, whose images of late modern architecture in Los Angeles (and elsewhere) were the subject of one of the year’s best monographs.

Fight the Power Prize: MoMA’s “Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America” was the year’s most provocative exhibition, giving new perspective to how cities have been and could be built.

The Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce Branding Prize. AT&T gave Dallas a new public square—and put a 30-foot-tall, rotating, LED-illuminated version of its globe logo in prime position.

Zillow Prize for Best Listing: Robert Bruno’s unfinished Steel House, a biomorphic beast of Cor-Ten Steel just outside of Lubbock suburb was put on the market for $1.75m.

Ian Schrager Velvet Rope of Achievement: To Kendall Roy, for his Hudson Yards-set birthday extravaganza. No rainbow band? No Treehouse.

Crustacean Cup: To Kate Orff and SCAPE. It’s been more than a decade since Orff first started talking about “oyster-tecture” but this fall cages of baby bivalves were sunk into New York waterways, where they will hopefully grow into shelly protection from future storms.

George Lucas Museum Trophy: Two years before the Star Wars director’s giant sneaker opens in Exposition Park: Behold! Renzo Piano’s don’t-call-it-the-Death Star, a.k.a. The Academy Museum, makes its debut down the street from LACMA’s demolition site.

Eisenstein Film Award: Alexei Navalny’s documentary, Putin’s Palace, on the Russian president’s gajillion-ruble Black Sea mansion, was viewed over 100 million times.

George Santayana Book Prize: To Geoff Manaugh and Nicola Twilley’s Until Proven Safe and Sara Jensen Carr’s The Topography of Wellness — two excellent histories we wish were less topical.

Architecture Is Everywhere Award: To Rafael Herrin-Ferri’s All the Queens Houses, making the leap from Instagram to book, and giving us the vocabulary to assess the borough’s “Commuter Tudors,” “Sky Ranches,” and “Pixel Ghosts.”

MacGuyver Golden Wrench: To Richard Corsi and Jim Rosenthal, whose DIY air purifier, made from five furnace filters, one box fan, and fifteen minutes of your time, put cleaner air within reach of millions at minimal cost.

Waste Not Want Not Award: To Julie Bargmann of D.I.R.T. Studio, winner of the inaugural Cornelia Hahn Oberlander International Landscape Architecture Prize, who was talking about regenerating toxic sites long before the planet started melting down.

The Brick Says Keep It! Award: To the arch, on its way out after half a decade of dominating millennial style. But at least it is going out in style …

Posthumous Public Art Palme d’Or: They are no longer with us, but Christo & Jeanne-Claude fulfilled their dream to wrap the Arc de Triomphe.

New Sheriff in Town Badge: Billie Tsien takes over as chair of the Commission of Fine Arts, bringing a halt to trollish traditionalism.

The Marcel Proust Madeleine of Achievement: To the Los Angeles Civic Memory Project, which created a framework for addressing diverse narratives.

Reading Rainbow Prize: To Adjaye Associates’s Winter Park Library Complex, a temple to reading that (hmmm, perhaps we spoke too soon) greets users with a smiling series of arched openings.

Big Jim Award: To Preservation Futures and the multi-generational coalition of advocates who fought for the preservation of Helmut Jahn’s James R. Thompson Center, that teal-and-coral temple to good government and Sbarro pizza. If only Jahn had lived to celebrate this win for postmodernism and Chicago architecture, RIP.

Brutalist in Chief: We don’t want to say Mayor Michelle Wu won the race because she endorsed Boston City Hall (her transportation, housing, equity, and parental leave policies probably had something to do with it) but it feels good to know that a fan is in the building.

Good for Women in Architecture Award: Sixty-four years after her death and Julia Morgan has never been more relevant, thanks to the adaptive reuse of her stunning Herald Examiner Building in downtown Los Angeles, a podcast on her life and achievements, and a forthcoming “intimate biography.”

Good for Women in Preservation Award (x2): Client Edith Farnsworth gets her name added to the Farnsworth house and her furniture put back; Corita Kent — artist, educator, nun — gets her studio saved as a Historic-Cultural Monument.

Little Boxes Made of Ticky-Tacky Prize: No amount of money can insulate you from the forces of gravity, shoddy construction and schadenfreude, as the residents of supertall 432 Park discovered this fall.

The KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) Design Prize: Barkow Leibinger’s Harvard ArtLab is a basic shed, which is just right.

Design Collector of the Year: Nothing was going to keep America’s favorite lady comic, Deborah Vance, from that Jean Royere pepper shaker.

Hunkering Down Prize: To Season 2 of the Nice Try! podcast, in which host Avery Trufelman examines the not-always-so-cosy stories behind home designs from doorbells to crockpots.

The Prize Which Will Remain Nameless: Picked a good one this year in French architects Lacaton & Vassal. A woman, a partnership, a practice devoted to reuse, to clean air, to literal openness … and of course to a highly refined aesthetic.

Been There, Done That Prize: Every new tower doesn’t need to be staggered, offset boxes. Move on, architects.

Coming Attractions Award: To American Dream, the New Jersey megamall perpetually in a state of grand opening. It gave one of us the perfect point of entry to her book on the history and future of malls — in stores June 2022.

In Memoriam

Nobody wore lime green with as much joy as Richard Rogers, who brought a keen sense of color along with invention, humanity, and sustainability to modern architecture and modern cities (and stuck it to priggish Prince Charles).

The Brazilian architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha wielded concrete with a unique combination of daring and grace. To stand beneath the monumental concrete beam of his MuBE sculpture museum is to understand the dramatic possibilities of built form. His final project, fittingly, is a community center in downtown Sao Paulo.

From accessible stramps to urban groves, creative playgrounds to green roofs, Canadian landscape architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander’s work brought visual delight, rugged topography and a sense of play to the heart of cities.

The impish and indefatigable Dallas landscape architect Kevin Sloan championed the Texas landscape and native ecologies, helping a region think diffrently about itself.

Art Gensler built the biggest architecture firm in the world by refining the modern office in both culture and space.

Curator and architect Terry Riley is best remembered for his visually striking and trend-setting 1990s MoMA exhibitions, including “The Un-Private House” and “Light Construction,” which revealed a future for architecture we are still seeing built out.

Gentlemanly urban planner Alex Garvin helped shape New York, Atlanta, and other cities through the challenges of the late modern era.

Air guitarist David Hickey made criticism fun.

Design was far from cultural critic bell hooks’s primary focus, but when she did focus on it she was both sharp and appreciative, calling for collectives of care, aesthetics divorced from class, and acting on the bumper sticker slogan, “Live simply so that others may simply live.’’

While other designers in the Knoll stable devoted themselves to the office, Richard Schultz brought a horticulturalist’s love of petals, patterns and shadow to ageless outdoor furniture designs.

Kristen Richards was ahead of the curve when she began her curated, occasionally caustic newsletter ArchNewsNow, but her daily emails made the fragmented, global architecture world feel like a community — the same role she performed as a buoyant, gravel-voiced presence at New York architecture events.

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Alexandra Lange is a cultural critic and author of The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids. She is currently at work on a book about the history and future of the shopping mall. Twitter. Instagram.

Mark Lamster is the architecture critic of the Dallas Morning News, and a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. His biography of Philip Johnson, The Man In the Glass House, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2018. Twitter, Instagram.

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