AIA’s Jefferson Award Comes Full Circle
|Michael A. Fitts, FAIA
Photo: Courtesy the State of Tennessee
Michael A. Fitts, FAIA, didn’t think he would receive the Thomas Jefferson Award for Public Architecture when he helped launch the prize in 1991. Back then, the American Institute of Architects’ Committee on Public Architecture had a threefold objective: to recognize advocacy and achievement in public architecture; to raise the stature of public architects; and to promote architecture in the mainstream and in the profession. But fittingly, after 36 years pursuing exactly these goals as the state architect of Tennessee, Fitts is being lauded with one of two Jefferson awards at the AIA 2007 National Convention and Design Exposition this week.
Like many architects, Fitts initially was prejudiced against a government career—“It’s hard to get architects interested in government work,” he admits—and calls his first job with government, as a civil engineer for the State of Tennessee, “a stopgap measure.” But meeting then-state architect Clayton Dekle in 1963 changed his mind. “I became enamored with how he was working with a variety of architects and pushing them to produce excellence.” Fitts went on to earn his M.Arch. at the University of Tennessee, returned to the office, and was promoted to the top position in 1971 at age 36. He also earned a third degree, in law, in 1980. Fitts cites the restoration of the State Capitol, headed by John Mesick, AIA, of the firm Mesick Cohen Wilson Baker, as a project of which he’s particularly proud. He adds that high-quality buildings “attract better people who can perform better government service” and influence local architectural standards.
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The other recipient of this year’s Jefferson Award, David Dixon, FAIA, may not have expected to win either. As principal in charge of planning and urban design at the Boston firm Goody Clancy, Dixon is the first urban designer to be honored in the category of private-sector architects who have produced noteworthy public projects.
Dixon’s contributions aren’t architectural. Rather, he applies smart-growth principles to high-density urban neighborhoods. Almost singlehandedly, Dixon has orchestrated the repopulation of city centers to ensure income diversity, public transit options, and open space. He points to the Civic Vision for Turnpike Air Rights Development, in Boston, and his role in lifting the development moratorium in Kendall Square, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as case studies in this kind of deployment. The projects also highlight Dixon’s extensive educational outreach to both communities and real estate developers to effect positive change.
Dixon happily professes his love for Boston, and cities in general, but says that nowadays 90 percent of his work takes him elsewhere. Regardless of location, the 59-year-old guesses that his devotion to the dynamism and diversity of traditional urban cores was propelled by a Los Angeles childhood in which “I only ran into people who were white, upper middle class, and Jewish.”
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