Vincent James and Jennifer Yoos, principals of VJAA, declare in their recently published monograph, “We believe that if the profession of architecture is to remain relevant, then the practice of architecture needs to become more plastic, not simply in terms of the appearance of buildings but in terms of how they are conceived, how they function, and how they respond to particular conditions.” It is the degree and type of response that ultimately shapes the range of projects undertaken by VJAA since its inception a decade ago.
Rejecting the expectation of a signature style, VJAA adopts instead a self-described “polyvalent” approach in which architectural form is not the incidental by-product of various constraints but rather the careful result of responding to particular contexts—whether cultural, geographic, or social—and challenging programmatic assumptions as well as the performance of conventional building types. In this way, architectural form may be a response to a specific impetus, perhaps found in the client’s proclivities, borne out of prevailing climatic conditions, or the desire to reframe social interactions.
This approach can be seen in such early works as the Type/Variant House (1996). Paralleling the owners’ interests in serial collecting, the carefully modulated structures that comprise the house, which is located in the woods of northern Wisconsin, constitute a collection of similar yet different wood-lined, copper-clad volumes. Sometimes architectural form is a response to the subject at hand. For instance, the dynamic nature of rowing is reflected in the wavelike roofline and wood and steel trusses of the Minneapolis Rowing Club Boathouse (2001), which echo the rhythmic pattern of the oarsmen’s motion. For a proposed museum of natural history in Cable, Wisconsin (2000), VJAA designed the structure as a symbiotic unit within its woodlands setting. A series of hourglass-shaped columns have been transformed beyond their traditional role of structural support and function also as light wells and water collectors, and in essence become chambers that can both sustain and display natural growth processes. Additionally, the building collects and processes rain water and wastewater through remediation ponds. In this instance, the conventional modernist strategy of blurring inside and outside takes on new meaning. The firm’s design for a student union building at Tulane University in New Orleans (2006) examines issues of climatic regulation with a desire for enhanced social activity. At Tulane, VJAA employs a variety of innovative building systems and technologies that enhance both the social and thermal permeability of the building envelope, allowing greater fluidity of circulation between inside and outside and among dining, studying, and socializing zones when conditions permit, while providing protection during climatic extremes.
Although based in Minneapolis and known locally for its elegantly refined Dayton House (1997) and the aforementioned rowing boathouse, the firm’s work is geographically diverse and includes projects such as the recently opened Hostler Student Center at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon (2007); residential loft projects in New York and Chicago; and an upcoming gatehouse for the University of Cincinnati campus. VJAA is the recipient of 10 national design awards within the past eight years, including six Progressive Architecture awards and two National American Institute of Architects Honor Awards. The firm’s work has been published in Architecture, A+U, Architectural Record, the New York Times, Praxis, Architecture Review, and Perspecta, and most recently in VJAA, a monograph published by Princeton Architectural Press.
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