Sweeping architecture: Vince James’ firm wins 3 awards

St. John's
The Petters Pavilion at St. John’s University, Collegeville, Minn. VJAA Architects. (Photo: Crosby Studio, St. Paul.)
One of VJAA’s awards was for the Petters Pavilion.


Minneapolis architect Vince James is a man of few words and few projects, but all are worth paying attention to. Last week, VJAA, the 18-person Minneapolis firm headed by James and his partner Jennifer Yoos, won three of the seven Minnesota Honor Awards given in the annual competition.

That’s what you would call a sweep.


The projects are the Porter Boathouse at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the Petters Pavilion, an addition to the renowned St. John’s Abbey Church in Collegeville, and the Lavin-Bernick Center for Student Life at Tulane University in New Orleans. You’ll get to hear more about VJAA’s work at an event Thursday at the Walker Art Center. (Details below.)

Other winners in the American Institute of Architects-Minnesota competition are the Plymouth Public Safety Building and City Hall by the BKV Group, the Ramsey County branch library in Maplewood by HGA, the Wall of Discovery at the University of Minnesota (also by HGA), and the Clure Project, three houses in Duluth (including his own) by David Salmela.


The Honor Awards, which recognize projects designed anywhere in the world by Minnesota architects, work this way: Each year a jury of three highly respected architects from around the country spends a day and a half paging through more than 100 black booklets of photos and selects the projects they deem worthy — without knowing the names of the architects. This year, the jurors were urban designer David Dixon of Goody Clancy in Boston, Josh Shelton of el dorado architects (architects love that lower-case thing) in Kansas City, and Victor “Trey” Trahan of Trahan Architects, Baton Rouge, La.

Disciplined design
VJAA’s sweep was no surprise. Every project the firm completes demonstrates uncommon restraint and intellectual rigor. The sweeping roof of the Minneapolis Rowing Club Boathouse under the Lake Street Bridge was inspired by the arc of an oar stroke. The Lake of the Isles house James designed for philanthropists and architectural aficionados Kenneth and Judy Dayton is impeccably detailed and serene. A vacation house in Wisconsin and lofts in Chicago and New York manage to be both minimalist and warm.

The Wisconsin boathouse is a simple two-story box with big scoop windows on the north to let light and natural ventilation into the practice floor.

The addition to St. John’s Abbey Church is understatement epitomized — exactly what was demanded. Designed by Marcel Breuer, the 1961 church is a modernist icon in which unadorned concrete creates a compelling spiritual space. But after 40 years of use, including many weddings, the church needed some extra spaces — handicapped-accessible bathrooms, a bride’s room and groom’s room, a new chapel and an updated Chapter House for the Benedictine monks.

The pavilion is so precisely married to the existing building that Breuer himself might have applauded.

The student center at Tulane is VJAA’s largest project to date and its most magnetic one. The existing closed-in student center was gutted and expanded to become a beacon of light and airy spaces.

Also finished this year were a guesthouse for St. John’s Abbey and an extraordinary five-building student activities complex at the American University in Beirut. Strangely enough, none of these recent VJAA efforts is in the Twin Cities. Perhaps this year’s awards sweep will turn some local heads VJAA’s way.

Want to see, hear more about VJAA?
James and Yoos will speak and show their work at the Walker Art Center’s “Drawn Here” series at 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 29 in the McGuire Theater at the Walker, 1750 Hennepin Ave., in Minneapolis. Free tickets are available at the Hennepin Lobby starting at 6 p.m. For more information, call 612-375-7600.

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