A Quarter-Century of Discovery

The Architectural League—a meeting place and discussion forum for New York’s (and North America’s) architectural community for several generations—celebrates its 125th anniversary this year. In recent years a major part of the league’s mission has been to identify the work of young architects who may be toiling over minute details for gigantic firms during the day and pouring their talent into competition entries on their dining room tables at night. Like its parent organization, the Young Architects Forum, the organization’s program for architects who have been out of school ten years or less, also hits a milestone this year—its 25th anniversary. The program has called attention to a veritable who’s-who of emerging designers such as Steven Holl, Neil Denari, and Billie Tsien. Anne Rieselbach, Program Director for the Architectural League, sat down with me to discuss the progression of the Young Architects Forum.

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How is each year’s Young Architect Forum created?
What sets the forum apart is the Young Architects committee. It’s made up of past winners of the competition. They meet and come up with the competition’s theme. The committee is sort of self-generating. They choose the theme, write a statement that explains it, and then choose the jury. Initially, the committee chose more senior architects. Recently, they seem to choose jury members who are a design generation older than they are, which is like dog and cat years. In the end, I think it’s really an indication of the way people are thinking in the profession.

This year’s theme is “Instability.” To what extent do the winners explicitly address the theme? Do you find that people are inspired by the themes?
Yeah, they’re either inspired or annoyed. If an entry is really good, it’ll make it to the final round no matter what. That being said, especially the last few years, when people have been more mindful of the theme, even if an entry has gone to the next round, if the architects aren’t talking about it in terms of the ideas expressed, then that’s not enough. During the first round the jury votes on everything, yes or no. Then in the afternoon, we’ll bring back the yeses, and vote again. At that point, reading the submitted texts plays a crucial role. We make a real conscious attempt to look at the portfolios in terms of their overall ideas because eventually the winning architects have to present their work.

If something doesn’t have strong visual content, really good design, then it won’t make it through. But there are a lot of really good designers out there. A lot of our winners end up doing a lot of teaching, and I think that’s because of all of the thought that that goes into their designs. It’s not just putting a poster on a wall in a gallery. The architects must have a level of intentionality to their designs that translates well into teaching.

Are the entries ever built work?
Yes. Very often. These designers don’t need to be registered, they don’t have to be architects. The work doesn’t even need to be buildable. We’re looking at the different ways young architects practice. And what’s really interesting—over the last five or six years—is the expansion of the kinds of technology and different ways of designing. So if you look at images of the work, you’ll find that there are some built projects and some really interesting explorations that are very theoretical.

We have 22 year old winners and 50 year old winners. But we’re trying to capture a point in their career. Sometimes we get a portfolio that’s so polished that we think that it isn’t a young practice. In early years, the program was more responsive to the general architectural scene. What’s so fascinating here is a year or two after the fact, in mainstream work, you’ll see some of the same ideas that came up here first.

Have you seen any trajectory from 1981 to now?
You can certainly see some stylistic variation through the years, but that’s not important. When you think about the themes and ideas, it’s not about how it looks but what they’re trying to convey through their work, especially with younger architects. It’s funny because I was looking through the past winners this weekend, and when you look through, the percentage of people who are teaching and writing stands out. We like to think that some of that comes from being recognized early.

What effect has the Young Architects Forum had on the careers of the people you have identified?
The first effect is that you’re not prone, 7 years out of school, to look retrospectively on what you’ve done. In this program, you can submit one project or you can submit 20, but you have to be able to think and talk about it. The forum has given people exposure to their peers. A lot of the “graduating classes” stay in touch with each other. But it also gives them recognition within publishing and academia. It gives them a lot more credibility. Another effect is that a lot of these designers stay in contact with us, and become lecturers in our Emerging Voices series.

How is the Architecture League celebrating the Young Architects Forum’s anniversary?
When we were thinking of ways to celebrate the 25th anniversary, a 25-year catalogue didn’t seem to make any sense, especially since our website is full of so many interesting things. This year, with the creation of a special anniversary Web site, Greg [Wessner, Special Projects Manager] created podcast films that are going to be on the site.

We decided to send all of our past winners a series of questions. We also asked them for three images from when they won and three from now. In the end, their answers got away from the particular, because a lot of their thoughts about the program started reiterating themselves—that the program is about being able to explore their ideas. The Young Architects Forum is a recognition and legitimization, both, of these designers’ approach to design, and a catalyst to give them the confidence to do bigger things.

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