Hugh Hardy

2010 President's Medal honoree

April 29, 2010

Photos: David Malosh. All rights reserved.

The President’s Medal of The Architectural League is presented to recognize extraordinary contributions to architecture and design. Recent recipients include Richard MeierAda Louise HuxtableKenneth FramptonTod Williams and Billie Tsien, Robert A.M. Stern, and Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown.

On April 29, 2010, the President’s Medal was presented to Hugh Hardy at a dinner in his honor at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, an institution for which Hugh has long been affiliated as its architect. The evening began with cocktails and tours of the BAM Harvey Theater, followed by dinner and remarks in the Lepercq Space in BAM’s main building.

League President Calvin Tsao made the following remarks upon presenting the medal to Hugh Hardy:

We are gathered together this evening to celebrate someone who is near and dear to our hearts and to the civic heart of this city. In fact, the story of Hugh Hardy’s career as an architect is so closely intertwined with the cultural landscape of New York over the past forty years that his presence is felt in virtually every significant arts institution around the city. Of course, here tonight, in this magnificent space, but also in so many other places that are vital to our cultural life. It’s not hyperbole to say that much of what we love best about New York’s architectural survival and revival since the 1970s has benefited from Hugh’s touch. There’s The Harvey, of course, and the Dance Theater of Harlem, the Joyce Theater, the New Victory Theater, the New Amsterdam Theater, Radio City Music Hall, the Rainbow Room, Bryant Park and the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, and, well, I could go on and on and on. The evening is not nearly long enough for me to list his many projects just in New York much less around the country.

Like so many of this city’s proudest inhabitants and fiercest protectors, Hugh wasn’t born here but came here by absolute necessity—and in the end it turns out that the city has needed him just as much, if not more, than he needed the city. Hugh was born in Mallorca, Spain and grew up not far from here, in Tarrytown. He has said that his infatuation with New York City can be traced to “that tender age when I used to sit alone in the balcony of just about every theater in Times Square watching second-run movies.”Stage struck, one of Hugh’s first jobs after serving in the engineering corps of the United States Navy, was to work for the celebrated set designer Jo Mielziner. Hugh claims he got the job working for his boyhood hero by pestering him. Knowing Hugh, I don’t think there was much pestering involved. I’m sure Mielziner just took one look at Hugh’s firmly planted feet, steady blue-eyed gaze and ear-to-ear grin and realized that he had no choice but to hire him. Under Mielziner’s tutelage, Hugh did such things as paint a hotel room set for the original production of “Gypsy”—something that anyone like me who also came to architecture from a love of theater would kill to have on their resume.

Not surprisingly, it was Mielziner who introduced Hugh to his second cultural hero and next mentor, Eero Saarinen when Mielziner and Saarinen began working together on the design of the Vivian Beaumont Theater. This encounter with Saarinen put Hugh firmly on the path of architecture and he hasn’t looked back since. But it’s important to note that Hugh never actually gave up the theater, he just got out of the theater to become its biggest champion by saving old venues or creating new ones or reimagining public parks as performance spaces of an entirely different scale. And I don’t mean to give you the impression that Hugh is only comfortable off stage; word has it that he’s got quite a way with show tunes and he could even have a viable third career as a cabaret singer.

In his profile of Hugh in The New Yorker, Brendan Gill compared his subject to another one of this city’s greatest architectural citizens, Stanford White, saying that ‘White and Hardy may be said to have achieved their professional reputations by dint of exceptional charm and energy—the matter of their talent having been accepted at the beginning of their careers as something more or less beyond challenge.’ While it’s heady for any architect to be compared to the incomparable Mr. White and to have his architectural legacy measured alongside that of White’s, let’s for a second focus on that “exceptional charm and energy” bit because those are two traits Hugh has in such abundance that he could only have been born with them. As Gill pointed out, that charm of Hugh’s is anything but superficial as it’s discernible in his work. There’s no signature style to speak of rather a signature playfulness, erudition, and willingness to take risks. What Gill called Hugh’s ‘inveterately boyish demeanor,’ is a quality that is as visible today as when Gill wrote his piece in 1996, and probably what accounts for the freshness of his work. For him, architecture is, mostly simply put, where life happens and life is, after all, grand.

Architecture is not a profession for those who tire easily and it’s the virtues of patience and persistence that they don’t teach you in school but that often make the difference between success and total frustration. Somehow Hugh embodies all these qualities with an effortlessness that belies that incredible focus required to marshal the many forces necessary to succeed in the public realm. For those of us who are his colleagues in the profession and have been recipients of his advice or behind the scenes help at a critical juncture, we know that his aura of effortlessness is matched only by his generosity of spirit. It’s clear that his work as an architect doesn’t stop at his desk; in fact he brings his customary cheerfulness, refreshing common sense, boundless enthusiasm, and considerable influence in support of projects by other architects as an unofficial, yet equally tireless, advocate for what he believes is right and good, even if it’s not designed by him.

And so it is that Hugh has become to us at the Architectural League as much of a landmark as those many treasures he has resuscitated, reinterpreted and re-imagined. ‘Architecture is no more than making conscious choices,’ Hugh has said, with typical understatement, of his chosen field. If that’s the case, then tonight we celebrate one of Hugh’s best conscious choices: becoming an architect. We award this President’s Medal, our highest honor, to our very own Mr. New York who I encourage to take a well-deserved bow. But there’s more to come, of that I’m sure. Tomorrow he’ll be back at work coaxing new life and more dollars into one more against-all-odds project. With Hugh the show always must go on and any of his performance is one that shouldn’t be missed.