- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 13, 2005

Engineered structures of glass and steel are back in style after decades of decorous, neo-traditional building — a return to modernism that was officially sanctioned Friday at this year’s Accent on Architecture Awards.

Nearly 900 guests paying from $200 to $1,000 per ticket filled the great hall of the National Building Museum (purists still like to refer to it as the “Pension Building”) for cocktails, dinner and presentation of the American Institute of Architects’ top honors to technology-minded architects.

Back in 1990, the first Accent on Architecture spotlighted Britain’s Prince Charles, who gave a speech gently criticizing the kind of stark, high-tech architecture that was celebrated at Friday’s event.

This year’s proceedings, emceed by Ray Suarez of PBS, were much more low- key, with few star architects in attendance. Among the VIPS were Architect of the U.S. Capitol Alan Hantman; Greek Ambassador George Savvaides; Dallas Mayor Laura Miller; General Services Administration Administrator Stephen Perry; former GSA Chief Architect Edward Feiner (who now heads Skidmore, Owings and Merrill’s D.C. office); and former Honolulu Mayor Jeremy Harris, who urged politicians to “pick up the torch in finding ways to deal with urban sprawl and the death of downtowns” after picking up the AIA’s Keystone Award.

With prizes going to structural innovators, this year’s event could have been dubbed “Accent on Engineering.” The star of the night, 53-year-old Spanish architect and civil engineer Santiago Calatrava, deservedly won this year’s AIA Gold Medal for making bridges, subway stations and airport terminals soaring, spectacular structures.

“For a guy, he does the most feminine architecture, with lots of curves and movement,” New York architect Ronnette Riley, chairwoman of AIA’s design committee, said over pre-dinner drinks. “His architecture has emotional impact.”

Mr. Calatrava and his wife, Robertina, a lawyer who runs his business, flew to Washington from Atlanta where his design for a new $300 million symphony hall was unveiled. Another recent project is a $2 billion transportation hub for the World Trade Center site.

Future commissions may include a fountain and a baptistery for the Crystal Cathedral, the mega-church in Garden Grove, Calif., designed by Philip Johnson, who died in January and was honored with a moment of silence at the dinner.

“This project needs a great architect like Calatrava,” the cathedral’s founder, Rev. Robert Schuller, pronounced before the dinner. Mr. Schuller said he was going to have breakfast with the Spanish architect on Saturday to hatch the plan.

AIA’s engineering theme continued with an award to Murphy/Jahn, the Chicago firm best known for the United Airlines terminal at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. German-born Helmut Jahn, who sounded like California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger onstage, called his steely designs “archi-neering.” No girlie-man buildings for this tough-minded designer.

Older modernism was also saluted in an accolade to the Yale Center for British Art, the elegant, steel-paneled museum designed by the late Louis Kahn. “It’s awe-inspiring … and remains one of the freshest buildings you’ll ever see,” said New York architect and Columbia University professor William MacDonald before guests dined on salad, surf and turf and chocolate cake.

Accepting the award were the center’s director, Amy Meyers, and Seattle architect Anthony Pellecchia, who helped finish the building after Mr. Kahn’s death in 1974. Also on hand was the architect’s daughter, Sue Ann Kahn, who noted before the proceedings that her father had won more posthumous AIA awards than Frank Lloyd Wright.

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