“Thank you for not talking about sustainability,” read one note from the audience attending the 60th Annual awards program for the Seattle chapter of the American Institute of Architects at the Moore Theater. It was a moment of slightly embarrassing irony, considering the theme of the evening: “Essential Architecture: A Dialog of Principled Design.”

Building 115, Graham Baba Architects

Building 115, Graham Baba Architects. Photo: Michael Matisse.

Irony aside, I suspect that most of those attending were there to recognize the art in architecture, just as they did sixty years ago. They do this year after year, even while environmental science, building technology and overall “performance” leap forward. The decision to build anything new at all is more problematic than ever before. With the recession jobs are scarcer, anyway.

And just as with most juries past, this one seemed to know that. They included Jim Jennings of Jim Jennings Architecture, San Francisco; Sheila O’Donnell of O’Donnell + Tuomey Architects, Dublin; and Gilles Saucier, of Saucier + Parotte Architects, Montreal. The moderator was Nathaniel Kahn, academy-award-nominee filmmaker (My Architect, Two Hands) and son of famous architect Louis Kahn. Sitting on the intimate stage of the Moore under the voluptuous lighting-art of Yuri Kinoshita, they talked about the joy of moving through the spaces in the buildings they visited, the thrill of discovery, the magical resolution of numerous elements, the harmony of outside and in.

There were no direct references to sustainable design in this year’s award categories, either. They included: Visionary (unbuilt), Measurable (built, in general), Economical, (using “limited esources in an innovative and succinct way”) and Techtonic (showing “the sublime craft of executing building elements”). Co-Chairs for the 2010 AIA Seattle Honor Awards were Tyler Engle of Tyler Engle Architects and Ray Calabro of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson.

Colman Triplex, Workshop AD. Photo: Workshop AD

Colman Triplex, Workshop AD. Photo: Workshop AD.

The jury gave out only one Honor Award—for Colman Triplex by Workshop AD, calling this elegant, intricate variation on the modernist white box a “model for future residential building in the city,” saying it had the “right amount of detail.”

Suncrest Residence, Heliotrope Architects

Suncrest Residence, Heliotrope Architects. Photo: Benjamin Benschneider.

Four projects received Merit Awards. They included the stick-filled Bodega Residence by Cutler Anderson Architects; the multi-form Port Townsend Residence by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson; the deceptively simple Seattle Children’s Bellevue Clinic and Surgery Center by NBBJ and the arcing, linear Suncrest Residence by Heliotrope Architects.

Rainier Vista Boys & Girls Club and Rainier Valley Teen Center, Weinstein A|U Architects + Urban Designers LLC.

Rainier Vista Boys & Girls Club and Rainier Valley Teen Center, Weinstein A|U Architects + Urban Designers LLC. Photo: © Michael Burns, Seattle.

It was a good night for Graham Baba Architects, which was recognized with Commendations for two mixed-use projects – one new and one renovation – in Ballard: the incisively urban Building 115 and the old brick Kolstrand Building. Another commendation was awarded to Weinstein A|U Architects + Urban Designers for the ruggedly inviting, light-filled Rainier Vista Boys & Girls Club and Rainier Valley Teen Center.

Deployable Greenhouses, atelierjones llc. Photo: atelierjones llc.

Deployable Greenhouses, atelierjones llc. Photo: atelierjones llc.

Olson Kundig Architects garnered two Citations: the self-explanatory Art Stable Hinge and T Bailey Offices, an unbuilt project featuring wind turbine pieces. Others honored included ultrasustainable Deployable Greenhouses by atelierjones; an uncanny Steel Stair by DeForest Architects and the city friendly University of Washington West Campus Student Housing by Mahlum.

A year never passes without some talk of “pushing the envelope,” which is to say, pushing against conventional thinking, against the legal and practical constraints of the site, against the budget and even against the client. That staple of award-winning architecture, the single-family dwelling, seems to give the most freedom. But we couldn’t go on and on building one-off retreats in stunning natural settings, even if there were plenty of confident patrons with ready cash. We understand that it’s usually not the best use of land, talent or resources. Really, we do.

But we want to see and celebrate the dance of art amid the practical performance of architecture. It’s an unending process that nevertheless has a provisional end and a serious commitment with each act of building. That’s why hundreds of us pack into a downtown venue every year where few are recognized with awards. We want to see a jury struggle with opposing goals and a ritual of recognition that is as imperfect as the design process. We want to see art coexist with science and sustainability. But art first, please.