League Prize 1981: Dwelling in the Cracks: Responses to the City

Established in 1981 to recognize visionary work by young practitioners, The Architectural League Prize is an annual competition, lecture series, and exhibition led by the League and its Young Architects + Designers Committee.

The 1981 winners included:

  • Dodie Acklie
  • David Cagle
  • Steven Forman
  • Alexander Gorlin
  • Robert Gryzwacz
  • Steven Holl
  • Ralph Lerner
  • Michael McDonough
  • Donna Robertson
  • James Sanders & Roy Strickland
  • Mark Schimmenti
  • David Spiker

The text prepared for the prize exhibition read as follows:

This series of presentations offers the work of several young architects as “Responses to the City.” It brings together theoretical and executed projects, commenting on the kinds of opportunities available to the emerging generation. The work represented is diverse, even contradictory in scope, ethereal and pragmatic, uncompromising and accommodating. The projects manipulate limited resources with conviction and creativity.

Young architects have inherited design opportunities considerably scaled down in magnitude from their predecessors. Present economics favor conservation and creative re-use over new construction. Design tactics and aesthetics depend increasingly on attitudes which celebrate the small gesture, encourage subtle interventions, and reward “retrofitting.” Most of the built work maximizes limited means and space.

Many projects illustrate just such modest manipulations: a small set of English row-houses combines abstract vernacular detailing with a program for a novel infill housing type. A small shrine to Bessie Smith inserts a monument into a typical 25 x 100 foot New York lot. Even the large commissions, for example, a Government Relations office for Honda, deal carefully with issues of scale and context.

“Visionary” or theoretical design proposals have been included in this series, yet they bear little resemblance to the grandiose imaginings of a Boullée, Garnier, or Soleri. After the upheavals of urban renewal, and subsequent attempts to redress those imbalances, this generation’s experiments deal with the re-evaluation of existing urban patterns, building types and fragments. Visionary reformulations of the city depend on devises [sic] such as overlay and juxtaposition, which encourage invention, reference and historical allusion (presently sanctioned by the profession), to provide cohesion and continuity.

A design proposal for Venice postulates growth through extension and extrusion into the water rather than attempt integration with an existing fabric of medieval alleyways and waterways. A “Bridge of Houses” strings a series of dwellings atop an abandoned elevated railway in Manhattan, turning a liability into an habitable outcrop. Another project, “Alphabet City,” a didactic pamphlet, accords our tenements and apartment houses the analytic attention once paid only to Italian villas and the French Hôtel de Ville. In a lighter mode, collaged fragments of architectural landmarks fashion a new line of garments—an “Architectural Costume Ball.”

What emerges from the great divergence of style, scope and execution of these projects is hard to characterize. Yet for the group at large, today’s limitations and restrictions seem hardly to have handicapped the imagination; rather a scattered wealth of response seems to emerge from the young architects’ attempt to educate, to cajole, to build.

The 1981 League Prize Committee included Hilary Brown, Thomas Markunas, Robert Seitz, Roy Strickland, and Kim Weller.

The jury comprised Emilio Ambasz, Max Bond, Lewis Davis, Malcolm Holzman, Thomas Markunas, Nory Miller, and Kim Weller.

More from past League Prize winners