The founding of The Architectural League on January 18, 1881 by a group of young architects led by Cass Gilbert exemplifies the ferment and ambition of New York’s architecture community towards the end of the nineteenth century. At a time when formal architectural education was still rare, the establishment of a voluntary association for “the purposes…of architectural study” was an acknowledgement on the part of young American architects that if they were to evolve creatively and intellectually, they would need to create the environment in which to do so themselves. Over the course of more than one hundred twenty-five years, that voluntary spirit of association and education has remained constant and continues to drive the League today. The architects, artists, and others who shape the League’s programs today are as motivated by a desire to enrich themselves and the practice of architecture as the 26 young architects who met in January 1881, and it is their creativity and commitment that help the League fulfill its mission to nurture excellence in architecture, design, and urbanism and stimulate thinking and debate about the critical design and building issues of our time.
In its earliest years, the League’s activities were confined to monthly sketch sessions, at which design problems, such as an American country house or a turkish fountain, were assigned and then critiqued by senior members of the profession. In 1886, after a couple of dormant years, a group of architects that included Henry Avery, Richard Morris Hunt, William R. Ware, and Frederick Withers organized an exhibition of architectural drawings as part of the annual exhibition of the Salmagundi Club. This became known as the first Annual Exhibition of The Architectural League and its success led to the League’s reorganization. Under the presidency of noted architect and critic Russell Sturgis (1889–1893), the League instituted a program of lectures, dinners, and exhibitions which it has presented uninterrupted ever since and which has established it as one of the most important fora for architecture and the arts in the United States and internationally.
From its inception, the League’s programs have been characterized by an emphasis on architecture as an art and on the connection of architecture to the other arts. The League’s vice presidencies (for visual arts, landscape architecture, photography, graphic design, industrial design, urban design, engineering, and history and theory) represent not only a reminder of the historic goals and structure of the organization, but a commitment to interdisciplinary conversation. The League’s Annual Exhibitions, held from 1886 to 1938, became events of national importance, in part, because they brought together the best new work in architecture, sculpture, painting, crafts, and landscape design. In the early 1890s, the League joined with the Art Students League and the Society of American Artists to build the American Fine Arts building at 215 West 57th Street, a bricks-and-mortar testament to the importance of collaboration among the arts. In the 1960s and 1970s, interdisciplinarity manifested itself in a series of avant garde installations and projects by artists and architects such as John Giorno, Christo, John Lobell, Les Levine, and Alan Sonfist. The League’s centennial exhibition, Collaboration: Artists & Architects, and 1995’s Architectures of Display carried this tradition forward in the 1980s and 1990s.
Notwithstanding its commitment to interdisciplinary exchange, the art of architecture has always been at the core of the League’s activities. Beginning with the Gold Medal awards of its Annual Exhibitions up to the more recent Architectural League Prize for Young Architects + Designers and Emerging Voices programs, a cornerstone of the League’s mission has been to identify and recognize talented and accomplished architects and encourage their creative development. Additionally, the League’s lectures, exhibitions, competitions, publications, and digital media have created a forum for the presentation and discussion of work and ideas that have been central to the development of architecture and urbanism. Whether the topic was the evolution of the skyscraper in the late nineteenth century or the conflicted transition to modernism in the 1920s and 1930s, the League has been the scene for key figures in architecture and design to discuss and debate the major issues of the day. At the beginning of the 21st century, this can be seen in the League’s programming devoted to the critically important issues of environmental responsibility in architecture, the impact of digital technologies on the form and use of buildings and cities, and in the launch of the League’s online publication Urban Omnibus, which is devoted to the culture of citymaking.
After more than a century and a quarter, The Architectural League remains a unique aggregation of intentions, programs, and people—neither museum nor school, neither club nor professional association. Because of both its singularity and its capacity for reinvention, all the while staying close to its original goals, The Architectural League remains as relevant, engaged, and necessary as it was for the group of young architects who founded it in 1881.