December 18, 2009
  Benjamin Vargas, FAIA, Honored with 2010 Whitney M. Young, Jr. Award

by Zach Mortice
Associate Editor

Summary: The AIA Board of Directors bestowed the Whitney M. Young, Jr. Award to Benjamin Vargas, FAIA, on Dec. 3 for his efforts to instill the values of diversity and inclusiveness into the AIA at a national, Institute-wide level, and for his recognition of Hispanic and Latino architects and their work. The Whitney Young award is given annually to the architect or organization that best exemplifies the profession’s social responsibility to be a positive force of social change.

From the inside
A native of Puerto Rico, Benjamin Vargas was drawn to civic and social services through his profession by the example of his own father. Vargas’s dad (also named Benjamin) was the first periodontologist in Puerto Rico. He helped to found the island’s first dental school, and established the Puerto Rico Dental Association. In 1967, Vargas’s father had a rapidly growing dental practice, and he hired an architect to remodel and expand his office. He brought the young Vargas to the architect’s studio one day, and he was immediately transfixed by the power of architecture to shape people’s lives. Vargas would later graduate with an architecture degree from Tulane and a commitment to architecture as a public service.

Vargas has established a presence within the AIA as a tireless advocate for institutional change to survey and remedy the lack of minority participation in the Institute and architecture at large. He was elected as the Florida/Caribbean regional director on the AIA’s Board in 2002, and has been on numerous committees and groups tasked with addressing this issue.

“Ben’s ‘top ten list’ of actions became the AIA Board’s guide posts for the coming years,” wrote Ronald Battaglia, FAIA, of Flynn Battaglia Architects in Buffalo, in a recommendation letter. “Ben is a strong advocate, a polished diplomat, and a sophisticated and self-deprecating professional who calmly and eloquently wins the day through complex discussions.”

Vargas has been at the helm of a great many of the diversity initiatives the AIA has undertaken, beginning with a resolution to track demographic data to better understand the challenges to diversity the profession faces. In 2005, he helped craft the AIA’s position statement on diversity , and in 2007 he participated in the planning committee for the AIA’s Diversity Plenary, a national meeting meant to improve the recruitment, retention, and promotion of diverse individuals into architecture. This year, Vargas helped create the AIA’s Diversity Recognition program, which recognizes architects for contributions to diversifying the profession by bestowing diversity best practice awards. Vargas was also instrumental in the appointment of a director of diversity and inclusion at the AIA, and has helped codify diversity as one of the AIA’s primary strategic initiatives. Throughout his career, Vargas has been vocal about the gap between Hispanic and Latino presence in the AIA and in architecture in general and their growing influence in American culture at large. He’s used his steady presence in the AIA to diligently work for change from the inside-out.

“Ben was the dependable and thoughtful originator of concepts and working papers designed to develop and bring into architecture the talents of aspiring Latino and Hispanic architects, and to recognize the practitioners who too often had been unrecognized even within their own firms,” wrote Boston Architectural College president Theodore Landsmark, Assoc. AIA, in a recommendation letter. “He has been consistently sensitive to the challenges and vicissitudes of introducing diversity initiatives into design firms and local components, and very empathetic toward utilizing different approaches of increasing diversity such that effective change would be possible.”

In service of history and culture
Vargas has also come to professional prominence for promoting the architecture and history of Caribbean architects, as well as building bridges of professional collaboration across the Caribbean. Vargas has lead several networking trips for Puerto Rican architects that have taken them to the Dominican Republic and Cuba in an attempt to build a pan-Caribbean culture of design collaboration. “I was impressed by the way he took the initiative of building bridges between our community of islands that comprise the Hispanic Caribbean, putting aside individual interests and volunteering to reach beyond his country’s shores,” wrote Omar Rancier, president of Grupo Nuevarquitectura in the Dominican Republic.

In 1997, he rallied the public to prevent the demolition of the historic La Concha Hotel in San Juan, P.R., which was eventually remodeled into a new, five star resort. This project won the AIA Puerto Rico Test of Time Award, which recognizes influential local buildings that are at least 25 years old; an award that Vargas himself initiated in 1994.

Puerto Rico’s design community can thank Vargas for rescuing the architectural archives of Puerto Rican architect Pedro Mendez, designer of the island’s most prominent Art Deco building. This collection, spanning 50 years of Mendez’s work, has been exhibited at several museums and is currently housed at the University of Puerto Rico. By studying this collection, archivists discovered Puerto Rico’s first university architecture program at the University of Puerto Rico, which lasted from 1921 till 1924 and had previously been lost to history. In addition, Vargas has written articles in several architecture journals and also penned an architecture column in a local newspaper.

“Ben’s resume of accomplishments is well documented, but it is his unique, quiet, thoughtful, and inspirational leadership that has had the greatest impact on the profession,” wrote Mickey Jacob, FAIA, of Tampa-based Urban Studio, in a letter of recommendation. “His mentorship, leadership, and vision have opened the doors of opportunity and touched the lives of many wishing to pursue a career in architecture, who in the past have found their paths filled with barriers.”

Notable past projects Vargas has worked on with his firm Bartizan Group Architects and Project Managers are the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy and High School and a cancer hospice for children called Hogar de Ninos Que Quieren Sonreir. Established in 1972, the Whitney M. Young, Jr. Award has honored architects and organizations that exemplify the profession’s proactive social mandate, ranging from issues such as affordable housing, minority inclusiveness, and access for persons with disabilities. The award is named after the civil rights-era head of the Urban League who confronted the AIA’s absence of socially progressive advocacy head-on at the 1968 national convention. Past winners have included J. Max Bond, FAIA (1987), Habitat for Humanity (1988), Curtis J. Moody, FAIA (1992), the National Organization of Minority Architects (2007), and Norma Sklarek, FAIA (2008).

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Visit the AIA’s Diversity and Inclusion Web site.

Visit the AIA’s Honors and Awards Web site.

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Image courtesy of Bartizan Group Architects and Project Managers.