A Medalist Worth Celebrating

June 10, 2010

The American Institute of Architects will gather this week for their annual meeting in Miami. The economy is in a funk. The glamor of the last bubble is gone. Architects are feeling undervalued. The government is stalling in its commitment to infrastucture improvements and green building. There seems little to celebrate.

One event at the meeting will surely draw the attention of the profession here in America–the appearance of this year’s Gold Medalist, Peter Bohlin. An American success story, par excellence, Bohlin is just the kind of architect who should be praised in 2010. He is a man of modest stature, quiet and assured. His architecture is subtle and gentle. He began his practice in Wilkes Barre, in the heart of Pennsylvania’s coal field. He has no flash, no inflated ego, no overblown charisma. His firm’s solid reputation has been built slowly, from the ground up.

In short, Peter Bohlin is a quintessential American builder, concerned more with substance than theory, with place more than style. All of his buildings are as expressive as their circumstances allow, but no more so, because that is what fits the client, the budget, and the locale. Unlike a Glenn Murcutt or a Luis Barragan, Bohlin is not a lone practitioner working in a highly personal way. His firm has several offices spread from coast to coast. He takes commissions that are meaningful to communities and neighborhoods as well as to individual patrons. He isn’t on the short list for glitzy museums in Abu Dhabi or Singapore. He doesn’t run with the fast crowd. In fact, he looks a bit rumpled, like a venerated grandpa.

In an era of shortages and diminished expectations, it seems just plain wrong to be giving out prizes for the kind of architecture that got built on massive corporate greed and cultural one-up-manship. To his credit, Peter Bohlin didn’t succumb to the star system that has driven high design for the past two decades. He put on his smock and sat at the drafting table every day, turning out buildings that one might mistake for vernacular, everyday places, buildings made of logs, industrial steel, bricks and mortar. I think that’s worth celebrating. Raise a glass of champagne for Mr. Bohlin, even if you can’t be in Miami.

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