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Kim Yao, AIA, 2020 President, AIA New York.

Unprecedented is a powerful word that emphasizes world-shattering events, a break from tradition, a new reality. It indicates a condition that is unlike any that has come before, at least in our lifetimes. As we close the first quarter of 2020, it’s a word that is used frequently to describe our new shared existence during a global pandemic. Due to COVID-19, I have witnessed friends and colleagues transition from business as usual to elective self-containment. As individuals, families, and companies, we have accelerated into new territory, relying on technology and virtual infrastructures to enable our daily activities for both work and play.

Architecture is an inherently collaborative discipline—the process of design, the integration of materials and systems, the execution of an abstract vision into material reality. I believe that our new daily grind—where working from home challenges the very premise of a healthy work-life balance—will leave an imprint on how we design and collaborate in the future. Just as 9/11 forever altered how we conceive of tall buildings and public space in dense urban environments, and Superstorm Sandy intensified our integration of resilient strategies for the city, COVID-19 has forced us to pivot towards new modes of constant collaboration. We are finding our footing despite our shared sense of unease and uncertainty in terms of personal health and safety and economic stability. As I write this letter today, and the virus continues to spread, we continue towards unknown territory that will test the social and economic resilience of our city.

Despite COVID-19’s long shadow, we must continue to gather as a discipline (albeit virtually) to further our shared discourse. It is of the utmost importance that during periods that strain our social fabric, we persist as architect optimists, for optimism and a belief in our ability to make the world a better place are at the root of our profession. This sense of optimism pervades the work of Snøhetta, winner of AIANY’s 2020 Medal of Honor. Aspirational, diverse, accessible—Snøhetta’s design work globally demonstrates intelligent design excellence. Its visionary architecture provides environments that bring people together—for work, study, play—at all scales. In New York City alone, the firm has transformed two of Manhattan’s most high-profile sites: the 9/11 Memorial and Museum Pavilion, and the heart of Times Square. Both sites required reinvention, necessitating architecture that directly engages the public. The 9/11 Memorial and Museum Pavilion is a gateway, a small and robust structure that bridges to an intense and emotional museum experience. The reconstruction of Times Square reimagines an urban condition that was fixed in the collective memory of New Yorkers. This ability to elevate and reinvent, in a fashion that invites the public in, is what sets Snøhetta’s work apart.

Beyond the quality of its architecture, Snøhetta also aspires to practice differently. Fundamentally an interdisciplinary practice—combining architecture, landscape architecture, graphics, and product design—Snøhetta embraces a nonhierarchical structure. Highly collaborative, Snøhetta literally draws from the collective to create. This philosophy underpins a design process that relies on the diverse perspectives of each team, where the individual has a voice contributing to a collective vision.

While we are entering unprecedented territory that challenges our social cohesion, I remain fundamentally optimistic about the entwined future of our city and profession. I am pleased that our community will come together, in the near future, to recognize Snøhetta, along with Gregory Wessner, Hon. AIA, executive director of Open House New York, and Alexandra Lange, the architecture critic for Curbed, who will also be honored at the ceremony. I congratulate all the 2020 AIANY Design Awards winners for their outstanding vision and work.

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