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  • Writer's pictureD. Maurice Kreis

Skinny Boats, Homes of the Rich, but No Sanctuary: The AIAVt 2020 Awards

Well-toned teenagers working in unison to zip about on lovely New England rivers and lakes, in sleek and skinny boats called "shells" -- what's cooler and more trendy than that? More to the point, if you lust for great architecture, those shells are 62 feet long and have to be kept somewhere when not in the water. Plus the athletes need to train, on land, the water is usually cold and not inviting. All of that has led to the creation of some interesting buildings.

Among the newest and finest examples of this building type is located on the Connecticut River. It's called the Draper Riverhouse and is the work of Watershed Studios, a firm based in Norwich, Vermont whose principal, architect Daniel Johnson, has long been a rare font of innovation and beauty amid the persistent ordinariness and conservatism that is contemporary architecture in both Vermont and New Hampshire. Eighty high school students have a bright new home out of which to practice their chosen sport, and Watershed just snagged itself a merit award from the Vermont Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIAVt).

That's the good news. The bad news, at least from the standpoint of those who yearn for better Vermont buildings, is that the Draper Riverhouse is actually in Massachusetts, on the campus of the Northfield-Mount Herman School. Further, the Watershed Studios creation shared that merit award with three private residences, all of which collectively came in second in the latest round of competition for recognition by AIAVt. The blue ribbon -- an Honor Award -- went to a very small affordable housing project in the very affluent college town of Middlebury.

Before you write in to complain, let me clarify a few things. I'm not here to trash affordable housing projects. Far from it. Habitat for Humanity, Middlebury College, and the local firm of McLeod Kredell Architects have managed to pull off something remarkable: Two units of high-performance affordable housing in the heart of a college town, dwellingplaces that harmonize well with their village context but nevertheless are not mere imitations of what was already there.

Students from an elite liberal arts college (which I'm also not trashing, because it's my alma mater) lending their elbow grease to a Habitat for Humanity project isn't news, but their doing so while gaining experience on an architecturally significant contribution to the built world of New England -- well, that is indeed award-worthy. My small quibble is that it's altogether too tempting to heap laurels reflexively on competition entries that check the currently applicable virtue boxes (homes for the impoverished, check; sustainability benchmarks, check).

Here's the meta-quibble. The Draper Riverhouse is the only non-residential project honored by AIAVt this time around. In a way, that's understandable; much of what has been innovative in American architecture from Monticello onward is attributable to experiments in residential design. But, unless the point of these awards is nothing more useful than omphaloskepsis, or more noble than business development fodder for the winners, it's sublimely frustrating to see laurels heaped upon projects that the public is unable to savor in person. (I am, of course, not factoring in the effects of the pandemic, which makes everything off limits to everyone, because sooner or later the virus will recede and civilization will resurge.)

So, let's double back to Watershed Studio and its boathouse at Northfield Mount Hermon. Daniel Johnson has stood for many years now at the crossroads of the Vermont design-build movement and the heady idealism one associates with Cambridge (including the architecture school at MIT where Johnson studied).

If you have 11 million bucks sloshing around in your bilge, then you can afford to hire Anmahian Winton Architects to create the Harry Parker Boathouse, for more than a decade a stunning presence on the Charles River near Boston thanks to the nonprofit organization Community Rowing, Inc. The closer your waterway gets to Harvard and MIT, the edgier you can be. Sign up the big metropolitan donors and you can use high-tech composite panels as cladding as well as doors designed for helicopter hangars.

For the rest of us in the outlying precincts of Northern New England, there are the joys of a Watershed design. Your classic Daniel Johnson building looks as if it wants to take flight, as if seeking to leave far below the ponderous proprieties of virtually everything else to be found on campuses like Northfield Mount Herman and in village centers like Johnson's home town of Norwich.

Those rowing machines that go with the crew team territory every bit as much as those skinny rivergoing vessels drive the design of any such boathouse to prairie-style horizontaility -- an effect that Johnson has run with so enthusiastically that one can practically see "Russia" and "China" at the end of the room as if one were the proverbial Manhattanite looking westward from Ninth Avenue as Saul Steinberg conjured for the New Yorker magazine cover of March 29, 1976. You really might need a map to get all the way to the end of that last rowing machine.

That's the indoor perspective. Outside, the boathouse nestles into its riverside site with the shell storage area on the lower level, below grade from the campus-facing approach. Altogether, as one approaches, one thinks of the lakeside summer home that most of us only dreamed about. To realize that Johnson and his team relied almost entirely on off-the-shelf components -- a world away from that boathouse on the Charles -- is to grasp that we have a small miracle here.

A frequent flyer when it comes to the AIAVt awards is the Richmond, Vermont-based design-build firm Birdseye. This year's reason to honor Birdseye is its LathHouse. Altogether too intriguing for prosaic old Vermont, this elegant summer cottage, clad entirely of repurposed wood, is located in Sagaponack, New York. Here's how the architects explain themselves on their web site:

"The architecture of Lathhouse is conceptually inspired by the eponymous lath house; a traditional gabled farm structure made primarily of wood laths or slats spaced to reduce sunlight while permitting ventilation. This wood detail is also found most notably in corn cribs, drying barns, and livestock shelters." What's not to like about that, even if you have to be Jimmy Fallon, Billy Joel, or Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg (to drop the names of just a few of the most famous Sagaponackians) to live there or anywhere else in a town where the median sale price for a home in 2019 was $4.3 million. No, I don't know who Birdseye's client for LathHouse was nor do I think we should eat the rich; let's just give their houses architectural awards and hope that the excellence somehow trickles down upon the rest of us. Meanwhile, here's to principals Jim Converse and John Seibert, who began their firm as a building contractor, and to principal architect Brian J. Mac, FAIA. Their enduring commitment to the details and realities of building has allowed them to build a distinguished design portfolio.

As I have already suggested, I have a few issues with the way AIAVt does its award. As is customary, the pulled in a jury of faraway peers -- this time, from Canada -- to dole out the honors. That's great. But what we needed and did not get was any kind of statement from the jury about what impressed them and what depressed them about the entries. Indeed, I'm always wondering how any awards jury justifies bestowing any honors on a building they have not actually visited. Or do they really think that mere photography is sufficient to communicate architectural intentions and spatial realities sufficiently well to permit intellectually honest qualitative assessment?

To the great credit of AIAVt, the chapter has published a virtual booklet (or virtually published a real booklet) that provides a glimpse not just of the winners but of all the entries in this latest awards competition. This is a fine public service inasmuch as it behooves Vermont's professional architects (or, at least, that portion of the indigenous profession that considers it worthwhile from a business and personal perspective to seek awards) to tip its hand from time to time.

Such a practice also allows afficionadoes of architectural awards, especially those with contrarian inclinations, to second-guess the jury. In this pile are at least two projects, each very much a public creation, that seem well worthy of recognition. A third, consisting of a laboratory in Randolph designed by the mega-firm CannonDesign for two agencies of Vermont state government to the standards established for LEED Gold certification, would likely seduce any jury deliberating now given the pandemic (which makes laboratories operated by state government sexy) and the sustainability features. But it is impossible to assess from the lean photographic evidence provided. The CannonDesign web site offers a slightly more revealing look but to assess such a project fairly one would have to walk through it with a scientist who could explain how it nurtures and/or undermines her work.

On the other hand, as a member of a Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregation whose bow-tie habit is in part a perpetual tribute to the best architect of the 20th Century (Louis Kahn), I drool over what gbA in Montpelier has created for the UU-ers in Middlebury. (Back when I prowled the streets of Monpelier gbA was Gossens Bachman Architects: I assume the firm has rebranded itself i part because it has lured Stephen Kredell away from the semi-emponymous, Middlebury-based firm referenced several paragraphs previously.)

Some Unitarian-Universalists get to worship here, in Rochester, New York, because their congregation had the foresight and audacity to commission a Kahn building:

In contrast, some of us are stuck with a prosaic and uninspiring house of UU worship because the buildings have been a mainstay of the community since the middle of the 19th Century and so the congregation will never have the temerity to stop sinking money into spire rehabilitations, etc., rather than begin anew with something that truly meets the need of contemporary seekers.

Ain't noting inherently wrong with an albatross, as long as you're Samuel Taylor Coleridge (or a religious congregation that is watching the median age of its members grow by the minute). The UU congregation in Norwich has a bright new sanctuary and the one in Woodstock has taken its historic meetinghouse and with sensitivity restored and improved it to an inspiring luster. Concord, New Hampshire has a strikingly 20th Century structure, completed in 1960 and recently fitted out, quite strikingly, with an array of solar panels on its front lawn. But in Middlebury, the Champlain Valley Unitarian Universalist Society seems to have found the sweet spot for a 21st Century sanctuary -- light, as Kahn well knew, being the key ingredient. Or, as gbA stated in its awards submission, after a year of earnest discussions with the congregation about the UU values of inclusiveness, tolerance, and participation, the firm decided that light would be "the guiding design force for the project.

The force, it appears, was with them. I am hedging here only because, yet again, this is a building that I have not visited nor, more significantly, did the jury apparently visit before deciding there was nothing sufficiently special here to leapfrog this building ahead of designs created solely to delight people of means and taste. According to the history on the congregation's web site, as recently as 1994 an "anxious but intrepid congregation" was sufficiently battered by a period of internal controversey that it was struggling with "worries about and hopes for its long term survival." The fact that, less than 30 years later, such a group could create a sanctuary of sufficient flexibility to be useful as a public space throughout the week, but sufficiently suffused with light and openness to serve well as a genuinely spiritual space -- that's more than enough to qualify as an architectural triumph anywhere in northern New England. When you don't want a religious building that screams "church!" it is altogether too easy to create something that looks and feels like a church basement.

You might want to google Alvar Aalto's Church of the Three Crosses in Finland, or the Lutheran Church that Gunnar Birkerts created for the architectural mecca of Columbus, Indiana in the 1980s (pictured below), for a sense of the possibilities and the sensibilities at issue here. In less capable hands, freedom from the conventional tropes associated with sanctuary spaces means you end up with something approximating a very pleasant, oversized classroom.

Just as Watershed Studios did not get to design its boathouse with the same degree of abandon available to Anmahian Winton Architects on the Charles River, gbA did not operate in Middlebury with the kind of artistic license available to architects who get in on the Columbus, Indiana scheme (thanks to the Cummins Foundation).

One non-honored project entry I have visited is the Weston Playhouse at Walker Farm, designed by Bread Loaf. Seeing as how it's been plunked into such an unabshedly agrarian setting, of course this is one project that could not have failed to imitate a barn. But this is that rare example where it works because, it turns out, a cozy black box theatre whose purpose is to allow its owner, traditionally a summer theater troupe, to expand into a year-round offerings, demands much the same flexibility and practicality that a historic barn does.

The result is an intimate and exhilarating theatergoing experience -- surely a sufficiently welcome and noteworthy addition to Vermont's built commonwealth as to merit recognition.

Unlike New Hampshire, Vermont has a tradition of architectural excellence and innovation to keep up. The AIAVt awards for 2020 offer reason to hope the tradition will persist.

[Note re photographs: Other than the shots of the Charles River boathouse, the traditional UU church in Hartland, and the Lutheran church in Columbus, all of the photos are from the AIAVt awards materials or the web site of the relevant architecture firms. I will gladly remove any of the images at the request of their owners.]

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