december 8, 2006

Edward Larrabee Barnes, FAIA, Selected for 2007 AIA Gold Medal

by Russell Boniface
Associate Editor

Summary: The AIA Board of Directors voted on December 7 to award posthumously the 2007 AIA Gold Medal to Edward Larrabee Barnes, FAIA. Barnes is remembered for fusing Modernism with vernacular architecture and understated design.

The AIA Gold Medal, awarded annually, is the highest honor the AIA confers on an architect. The Gold Medal honors an individual whose significant body of work has had a lasting influence on the theory and practice of architecture. Barnes will be commemorated at the American Architectural Foundation Accent on Architecture Gala, February 9, 2007, at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.

In describing Barnes, Henry N. Cobb, FAIA, founding partner with I.M. Pei of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, enthused in his letter of support: “With characteristically quiet determination, Edward Barnes produced a large body of distinguished built work—some of them too-little celebrated—during his more than 40 years of practice. Although Barnes was modest perhaps to a fault and often seemed to operate ‘below the radar’ of critical acclaim, his influence has nonetheless been broad and deep.”

“This would mean a tremendous amount to my father. Thank you very much,” said John Barnes when AIA President Kate Schwennsen, FAIA, called to tell him about the Board’s selection. “I can’t thank you enough.”

Modest, geometric signature
Barnes was noted for crisp, geometric buildings in both rural and urban landscapes that didn’t call attention to themselves, much like the architect himself. His work includes:

  • Haystack Mountain School of Crafts on Deer Isle, Maine, a village of shingled cottages placed on the National Register of Historic Places
  • Crown Center in Kansas City, an 85-acre, low-rise commercial office complex that handsomely shapes the cityscape
  • 590 Madison Avenue (formerly the IBM Building) in New York City, an elegant, nearly triangular, taut giant with a bamboo court atrium epicenter
  • 599 Lexington Avenue, also in New York, a sharply chiseled showcase of skyscraper angles
  • The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, a helical sequence of galleries known for its quiet elegance
  • The Dallas Museum of Art, a limestone composition of geometric forms that, while dominated by an imposing 40-foot-high barrel vault, seems to recede before the works within it
  • Thurgood Marshall Federal Judiciary Building in Washington, D.C., with its dramatic five-story glass atrium at its main entrance
  • The Sarah M. Scaife Gallery at the Carnegie Institute of Pittsburgh, a light-filled space respected for it graciousness.

Barnes’ museum designs seemed to reflect his modest personality. In Barnes’ own words: “We are trying to create architecture that does not compete with art—to put the priorities in the right order. It is flow more than function that concerns us. There must be a sense of going somewhere, like a river. At the same time the architecture must be relatively uneventful and anonymous.”

In supporting Barnes for the award, Toshiko Mori, FAIA, chair, Department of Architecture, Harvard Graduate School of Design, pointed out, “Barnes’ work is held in high regard among architects internationally and is influential in reassessing both the contemporary and future models of architecture. It has a generous sense of proportion spatially which is very different from precedent European models ... imbued with his social and spiritual understanding of the cultural aspects of the program and his sympathetic and humanistic attitude as an architect.”

Low-key yet iron-willed
Born in Chicago in 1915, Barnes received his undergraduate and master of architecture degrees from Harvard University. He was inspired there by Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer to pursue a purist form of Modernism, emphasizing function as opposed to ornament. After serving in the Navy during WWII and as curator of architecture at the Museum of Modern Art, Barnes opened his own architecture office in 1949. In its 45-year existence, Edward Larrabee Barnes Associates employed nearly 500 architects, many of them prominent in their own right, and won the AIA Firm Award in 1980. Barnes taught at Pratt Institute and Yale University and served as vice president to the American Academy in Rome.

Bruce Fowle, FAIA, who was an employee and associate of Barnes for eight years, attached a list of 136 colleagues and collaborators who endorsed Barnes’ for the Gold. Fowle described the Barnes’ work environment as the best that he ever experienced. “Both Ed and his wife Mary, who collaborated on many of his projects, were gracious and generous people. They treated all their employees with dignity and made everyone—and their families—feel that they were important contributors to the firm … Everyone in the office awaited the famous kitchen table sketches. He was remarkable in his ability to ‘read’ a complex program of requirements and turn it into a wonderfully simple architectural idea.”

Kevin Roche, FAIA, 1993 AIA Gold Medal recipient and 1982 Pritzker Prize recipient, explained, “Ed Barnes was an exemplary architect. Ed was self-effacing, low-key, and modest about his own work, and in his dealings with other people, yet his iron will, fierce determination, and relentless energy in the pursuit of excellence produced a body of work virtually unparalleled in the last 30 years.”

Barnes’ national awards include:

  • AIA Twenty-five Year Award, Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, Deer Isle, Maine (1994)
  • Alumni Lifetime Achievement Award, Harvard University Graduate School of Design (1993)
  • Harvard University 350th Anniversary Medal (1986)
  • AIA Honor Award, House in Dallas (1986)
  • Award of Honor for Art and Culture, Mayor of the City of New York (1982)
  • Thomas Jefferson Medal, University of Virginia (1981)
  • AIA Firm Award, 1980

Barnes becomes the 63rd AIA Gold Medallist, joining the ranks of such visionaries as Thomas Jefferson (1993), Frank Lloyd Wright (1949), Louis Sullivan (1944), LeCorbusier (1961), Louis Kahn (1971), I.M. Pei (1979), Cesar Pelli (1995), Santiago Calatrava (2005), and last year’s recipient, Antoine Predock. Barnes was 89 when he died in 2004. In recognition of his legacy to architecture, his name will be chiseled into the granite Wall of Honor in the lobby of the AIA headquarters in Washington, D.C.

news headlines

Celebration of the awarding of the 2007 AIA Gold Medal to Edward Larrabee Barnes and the 2007 AIA Firm Award to Leers Weinzapfel will take place at the annual Accent on Architecture celebration on February 9 at the National Building Museum, Washington, D.C. The AIA Board of Directors noted how fitting it is that these awards be made during the AIA150 sesquicentennial celebration year, the slogan for which is “Celebrating the Past—Designing the Future.” Barnes through his architectural legacy represents the firm foundation of our past, while the young firm of Leers Weinzapfel represents our faith in a future of excellence.

Photo Captions:

1. 2007 Gold Medal Recipient Edward Larrabee Barnes. Photo © Nancy Rica Schiff.

2. Haystack Mountain School of Arts and Crafts, Deer Isle, Maine. The project captured the 1993 AIA Twenty-Five Award. Photo © Joseph Molitor.

3. Barnes’ Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, has been described as the perfect foil for contemporary Modern Art. Photo © Joseph Cserna.

4. The Chicago Botanic Garden illustrates Barnes’ elemental skill at blending built and natural environment. Photo © Nick Wheeler.

5. IBM 590 Madison Avenue, New York City, shelters a much used and loved public plaza within its neatly detailed and elegantly proportioned walls. Photo © Cervin Robinson.