clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The decade in architecture: The good, the bad, and the capitalism

Two critics on 10 years of atypical design awards

Ten years ago, we had an idea. What if awards weren’t so boring? What if you got a prize not for being the best but for being the most? What if the black-clad masses of the design world could laugh at themselves? And lo, we began our own awards cycle, first at Design Observer and then here at Curbed, making up the prizes and handing them out. And now here we are at the end of the misbegotten decade, and we must ask: What exactly did it all come to, and who is responsible?

Below, we revisit our past prizes, pairing our initial write-ups with new commentary that reflects on the original award and how, if at all, our views have changed. These are the highlights of the last 10 sodden years, the ups and downs (mostly downs) as our culture and politics shriveled into a polarized narcissistic frenzy headed for climatic destruction. Enjoy!


Best Use of White Plastic From Italy: The dapper drones at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce got a new office, and the bright spot was Roger Sterling’s Nesso lamp, a glowing mushroom designed in 1964 by Giancarlo Mattioli.

For several years in the early aughts, no design story came without a reference to AMC’s Mad Men, the impeccably art-directed show that introduced a new generation to conversation pits, electric typewriters, Eames chairs, op art, and much, much more.

Baby Rem Award: Danish architect Bjarke Ingels, for the three-letter firm name (BIG), the delirious New York entrance (in the form of a graphic novel), and the cartoonish building names and shapes (8 House, the Mountain).

If one architect represents the style of the past decade, it is BIG’s Bjarke Ingels, whose aphoristic design vocabulary, caricature-worthy building shapes, and mastery of pop-culture references make him media and client catnip.

See the full list of awards from 2010.


I Waited 10 Years and All I Got Was a Massively Over-Budget and Highly Compromised Project Overshadowed by Banal Corporate Towers That May Never Be Finished Award: the 9/11 Memorial.

We still have our qualms, but next to Hudson Yards it feels like the Place des Vosges.

Fight the Power Award: To everyone, worldwide, who has #occupied public space in the name of political and economic reform.

The movement fizzled after Zuccotti, leaving us with pink pussy hats, Bernie Sanders, and cancel culture.

Put on a Happy Face Award: When everyone’s designing for good, what’s there to criticize?

Although the roots of modernism included service to the public, by the turn of the millennium, architecture was often associated with higher, taller, shinier towers. A new generation of designers, including Shigeru Ban, MASS Design Group, and Emmanuel Pratt, changed the narrative, demonstrating the public value of design.

See the full list of awards from 2011.


The Golden Blowtorch for Poor Community Relations: Museum Tower, Dallas.

An award so good we had to give it out EIGHT TIMES. The preening luxury tower is still reflecting blistering heat rays into the museum—Renzo Piano’s Nasher Sculpture Center—for which it was named.

The Neiman Marcus Big Spender Award: to Kelcy Warren, who paid millions to name Dallas’s new deck park after his 10-year-old son. Really.

Joke all you want, and yes, the expansion plan is a big, dumb waste of money, but guess what? The most influential urban project over the last decade might just be a deck park over a highway in, yes, Dallas—a High Line for the sunbelt set.

Where Starchitects Go to Die Award: D.C., where even Frank Gehry can’t get a non-neoclassical memorial built in the 21st century.

Ah, but for the halcyon days of 2012, when our chief gripe with conservative trolls was the classless, baseless, norm-shattering blockage of a Frank Gehry project. Sigh.

A City Is Not an iPad Dock Award: To Kickstarter, which turned its crowdfunding prowess from accessories to (questionable) urbanism.

Underground parks, floating pools, and pop-up everything marked the first wave of architecture projects on crowdsourcing platforms where for one brief, gimmicky moment it seemed as if micropayments might replace the public sector.

But Where Will Design Types Register? Award: The recession and e-commerce claim Soho design pioneer Moss.

Murray Moss and Franklin Getchell’s Soho store provided a template for every super-curated boutique to follow, not to mention the idea of curation outside the museum.

See the full list of awards from 2012.


Future FAIA Award: To Kanye West. Yes, internet, everything can be “architected.” You really needed Yeezus to tell you that?

After the dome-home mishigas, we’re gonna have to rescind our nomination. Back to the GSD for you, Kanye, and this time as a student.

If You Build It, They Will Ride Award: To Citibike. No deaths, 93,000 members. As riders, lanes, and political allies grow, the all-powerful bike lobby is no longer a joke.

We have learned that absolutely, positively, and no matter what, DO NOT CROSS THE ONLINE BIKE LOBBY. Bikes are great. Bike everywhere. And watch your goddamn door, you bleeping dink.

All Architecture Critics Go to Heaven Award: Ada Louise Huxtable, RIP.

If there’s one critic all the critics agree on, it is Ada Louise Huxtable, who defined newspaper coverage of architecture in the 20th century and perfected the sly, devastating zinger from her Pulitzer-winning perch at the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

Unfortunate Design Trend of the Year: In cities worldwide, billionaires forsake estates and classic sixes for supertall luxury tower aeries. This is urbanism?

We saw the pencil tower on the horizon. Now there are skylines full of them, they’re empty, and the floor is falling out of the luxury market.

Mitts-Off Medal: To the Museum of Modern Art, for thinking no one would care if they disappeared the 12-year-old American Folk Art Museum.

Hey, MoMA: Yes, you’re getting some nice reviews of the new joint, but don’t think we’ve forgotten about this act of cultural vandalism. Your job is to honor modern architecture, not destroy it.

Bad for Women in Architecture Award: To the Pritzker Prize committee, for declining to revisit Robert Venturi’s 1991 “solo” win.

We’ve given out this award every year, and we have never lacked for material. The Pritzker committee’s failure to wrestle with its own internalized misogyny undermined the old power of “architecture’s Nobel Prize” and demonstrated the new power of online organizing by millennials. We refer you to Tanner Boyle.

Take a Number Award: To the Rain Room, James Turrell’s “Aten Reign,” and Yayoi Kusama’s “I Who Have Arrived in Heaven.” Thanks to Instagram, the biggest exhibits in New York this year turned the wait into an event and the rest of the galleries into afterthoughts.

Where do you draw the line between art and the Instagram experience? Mega-attended mega-shows from reclusive artists James Turrell and Yayoi Kusama blur the boundary… and became a well of selfie backdrops that museums and galleries just kept dipping into.

See the full list of awards from 2013.


Most Unexpected Blobmeister: Peter Zumthor, whose hovering black form for LACMA continues to provoke head scratching.

Ah, for the heady days of Peter Zumthor’s Tar Pit-inspired Inkblot design for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art! Today’s beige midcentury coffee table excites neither critics nor curators nor benefactors—only Brad Pitt.

Top Jargon of 2014: “Tactical urbanism,” now enshrined in a MoMA exhibition, and close colleagues “pop-up urbanism” and “bottom-up urbanism.” We’re dangerously close to enshrining the small moves as we once did the big plans.

Some air has gone out of the idea that small, self-organized moves might catch on in a big way. That said, tactical protest designs—like Solo Cup bike lanes—have proved to be effective as political pot-stirrers, showing decision-makers the real-world consequences of inaction.

But Will It Play IRL Award: Thomas Heatherwick’s privatized “park” spaces for London (Garden Bridge) and New York (Pier 55) set up an uncomfortable choice between supporting design innovation and letting donors set urban priorities.

The Pied Piper of contemporary architecture never stopped spinning fairy tales, captivating very rich men, from Steve Ross (Vessel) to Barry Diller (Little Island), to invest in some major urban whimsy.

Beyond Beige Prize: To Memphis, the 1980s Italian design collective that made laminate chic. With Nathalie Du Pasquier at American Apparel, Peter Shire at the A+D Museum, and a massive monograph on guiding light Ettore Sottsass, it’s clear we needed a break from good taste all over again.

After decades of neutral good taste, the rebels of Italian design get their moment of return, courtesy of printed plastics, geometric gestures, and room-filling furniture.

Good for Women in Architecture Award: Amale Andraos of WORKac becomes dean at Columbia’s GSAPP. Looking forward to more conferences like the recent Architecture and Representation: The Arab City.

Progress toward gender equity in architecture remains painfully slow, but academic institutions, at least, have recognized that women are leading the profession.

See the full list of awards from 2014.


Mitt Romney Sensitivity Award: Rem Koolhaas’s Fondazione Prada in Milan is literally plated in gold.

Could any project better represent this new gilded age of haves and have nots than Rem’s gold-plated museum? What is there for a critic to do when reality becomes parody?

Smackdown Prize: To Mark Hogan (@markasaurus), for giving us the link we need the next time someone else proposes solving the housing problem with shipping containers.

We hit peak shipping container, the faux-recycling trend that will not die, with the dirty, narrow uninsulated metal boxes used for housing, markets, and more despite their inhuman dimensions.

The Dwell Award for Bourgeois Solutions to the Housing Crisis: First it was prefab; now it’s itty-bitty houses. Tupperware, anyone?

You know what’s better than a tiny house? A whole stack of them—we used to call them apartment buildings.

M.C. Escher Memorial Prize: To the isometric dream structures of UsTwo’s Monument Valley and William Chyr’s Manifold Garden.

When a computer game references Ricardo Bofill, Peter Eisenman, Indian stepwells, and onion domes, you bet it is of architectural interest. Monument Valley was only the first of many video games to delve into the 20th-century architectural canon.

See the full list of awards from 2015.


Best New Property Rollout Disguised as a Campaign Event: Trump Hotel/Old Post Office, Washington, D.C.

Dear lord it’s been so much worse than even we could have imagined. Some day we will joke about that time he invited the G8 to his bed-buggy Miami golf course, right? Right?

Worst Use of $4 Billion in Public Money: Santiago Calatrava’s Oculus is a very pretty, very expensive shopping mall for well-heeled tourists.

We love the mall, but not this leaky white elephant.

I Was President for Eight Years and All I Got Was This Library Award: But at least it will be tasteful? Tod and Billie are the surprise winners of the Obama Library Sweepstakes.

Too tasteful, and in the wrong place! The Obamas continue to be surprisingly tone deaf about the politics of the (now archives-free) Obama Center, sticking with a bland design that garnishes public parkland—and so far refusing to sign the kind of community benefits agreement organizer Obama would have pushed for.

Best Reason to Go to the Mall: David Adjaye & Co.’s bronze-colored Blacksonian, right next to the Washington Monument, is the right statement for a troubled nation.

Three years on, it is clear that the National Museum of African American History and Culture has only grown in importance—as an institution, as an architectural icon, and as a permanent symbol of the centrality of black history to the story of the United States.

Habitrail Metaphor Award: Thomas Heatherwick’s centerpiece for Hudson Yards is a basket weave stair-tower to nowhere.

Sometimes reasonable people say, “Wait and see, maybe it won’t be as absurd as the renderings.” This was not one of those times.

Frederick Law Olmsted Award: West 8 and Mathews Nielsen, for making nature out of landfill on Governors Island.

If we could pick one positive design trend of the past decade, it would be this: cities’ investment in ambitious public parks, often on former industrial or underutilized sites, that redefined the landscape of play and how much work open space could do for equity and against sea-level rise.

See the full list of awards from 2016.


Best Disappearing Act: Apple’s design leadership. From the 11,000-car garage at Apple “Park” to the company’s claim that stores are “town squares,” the behemoth has lost the plot.

The tech giant’s doughnut-shaped headquarters confirmed what many had been saying about its products: they had become too hermetic, too expensive, and too devoted to seamlessness above function.

You Can’t Get There From Here Award: The leadership of New York City’s MTA and Washington, D.C.’s WMATA seem determined to drive away subway and bus riders—and destroy their cities’ economies. But hey, there’s a ferry!

Don’t leave us, “Train Daddy” Andy Byford, you’re NYC’s only hope! Along with the 14th Street Busway.

Living in Make-Believe Award: Sidewalk Labs starts a from-scratch smart-city experiment in Toronto. But as cities reject Uber, LinkNYC stumbles into porn, and Amazon unlocks your front door, do we want to be their neighbor?

Thank you, Canada, for being the first city to stand up to the tech overlords and say, Who benefits? A nice waterfront park isn’t worth unregulated loss of privacy.

Diploma for Her Lawyer Foyer: McMansionHell deserves it for bushwhacking her way through the nonsensical rooflines, granite acreage, and Certified Dank finished basements of America’s cul-de-sacs.

What does architecture criticism in the 10s look like? Zillow photographs of domestic monstrosities labeled for maximum cheekiness by Kate Wagner.

Played-Out Cup: The Museum of Ice Cream, where the sprinkles are plastic and the fun is strictly for the camera. Move along; your 45 minutes are up.

What if you made a museum just for taking photos? The popularity of the Museum of Ice Cream, a conveyor belt of sugary photo opportunities, spawned copycats across the country, playgrounds in which looking good on social media was the principal form of fun. Sadly for our dental health, this trend shows no sign of slowing down.

Preservation Makes Strange Bedfellows Award: Postmodernism brings lovers of light, glass, and grids to some mighty historicist barricades, as the AT&T Building is threatened with an Apple-botomy, and the Portland Building with a face transplant.

Every 10 years preservation’s cause célèbre changes, as more buildings hit the magical 30-year mark: Mad Men made saving midcentury skyscrapers passe, Brutalism memes convinced some people concrete could be cuddly; in 2017 it became 1980s architecture’s turn, with disastrous renovation plans for these two icons. (Meanwhile, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission shrugged off SOM’s Union Carbide Building as just another steel-and-glass tower, paving the way for demolition.)

Architecture That Should Have No Architects Award: The U.S.-Mexico border wall, may it never expand beyond these dystopian samples.

No federal money for mass transit, but to stop fake mass transit, we’ll spend anything. Brrrriiilliiant.

See the full list of awards from 2017.


It Will Make You Cry Award: To the National Memorial for Peace & Justice (aka the Lynching Memorial) in Montgomery: the most powerful work of memorial design since Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

MASS Design Group’s memorial to victims of lynching is a heart-rending coordination of form and meaning.

It’s Zoning, Stupid Award: 2018 was the year everyone learned what YIMBY means, thanks to forward-thinking cities like Minneapolis, where single-family zoning is now an artifact of the past.

How do you solve a problem like the housing crisis? By building more housing—and not allowing homeowners to fight density in their backyards. 2018 turned constructing more units into a political fight bigger than any neighborhood.

The Future Will Be Pedestrianized Prize: The war on cars (also the name of an excellent podcast) comes home as fires burn, sea levels rise, and the planet warms. Count us firmly in the #EverythingButCars transportation camp.

A few years back, a war on cars sounded extreme, even un-American. Today, driving less seems like one of the few personal changes that could make a significant difference for our planet’s future.

Urbanist of the Year: Who built our dream city with shiny, swooping public transportation, a walkable core, and skyscrapers made of brick, concrete, and vibranium? Production designer Hannah Beachler, whose Wakandan capital combined Afrofuturism with Zahaphilia.

A wish for urban planning in the 2020s: that the richness of reference and diversity of experience required to create the fictional Wakanda be reflected in those planning our cities IRL.

See the full list of awards from 2018.


Triggering Award: Watching the cathedral of Notre Dame burn brought us to tears.

Somebody’s Watching You Award: To San Francisco’s Salesforce Park, branded, laden with native plants, and surveilled by cameras and smiling “ambassadors.”

XXL Prize: To the Museum of Modern Art, which seems to think art is exempt from the law of induced demand.

The VersaClimber Design Badge: Steven Holl’s long-awaited Hunter’s Point Library thrilled critics—until everyone realized that its stair-driven design was an ADA fiasco.

The Phoenix Award: After years of mouldering, Eero Saarinen’s jet-age TWA Terminal returned to glorious flight as a hotel lobby and Instagram hotspot.

There Grows the Neighborhood Award: The latest MacArthur certified archi-genius is Sweetwater Foundation’s Emmanuel Pratt, who raised a gorgeous wood-frame barn on Chicago’s South Side for community projects.

Dream a Better Dream Award: Hudson Yards, gigantic missed opportunity.

House of the Year: Parasite’s contemporary villa, designed for the screen by production designer Lee Ha Jun, which brings Upstairs Downstairs into the 21st century.

Some Like It Hot Award: David Adjaye’s winning Ruby City art center is a chiseled block of rough red concrete, built to display the collection of salsa heiress Linda Pace.

Sweet Music Award: At Tanglewood, summer home of the Boston Symphony, Bill Rawn’s Linde Center embraces the Berkshires landscape with linked pavilions.

Farewell to Mad Men, architecture division: The 2019 deaths of Florence Knoll, I.M. Pei, Cesar Pelli, and Kevin Roche mark the passing of the generation that designed and furnished the glassy, gridded offices of dreams.


The Simple Life

10 Questions With

Olalekan Jeyifous Is Imagining an Afrofuturist Brooklyn

News | From Curbed SF

Here’s Why the Golden Gate Bridge Was Singing

View all stories in Architecture