Only five times in the 100-year history of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Gold Medal has the AIA's highest honor been awarded posthumously. Renowned 20th-century architect Edward Larrabee Barnes, FAIA has now joined the ranks of the others — Thomas Jefferson, Eero Saarinen, Richard Neutra, William Caudill, and Samuel Mockbee — who did not live long enough to enjoy this well deserved symbol of professional recognition.Barnes is perhaps best remembered for fusing American modernism with vernacular architecture. In describing him, Henry N. Cobb, FAIA, founding partner with Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, remarked: "With characteristically quiet determination, Edward Barnes produced a large body of distinguished built work — some of them too-little celebrated — during his more than 40 years of practice. Although Barnes was modest, perhaps to a fault, and often seemed to operate 'below the radar' of critical acclaim, his influence has nonetheless been broad and deep."
In nominating Barnes for the 2007 AIA Gold Medal, Toshiko Mori, FAIA, chair of the Department of Architecture, Harvard Graduate School of Design, observed, "Barnes's work is held in high regard among architects internationally and is influential in reassessing both the contemporary and future models of architecture. It has a generous sense of proportion spatially which is very different from precedent European models."
Barnes was born in Chicago in 1915 and attended the Harvard Graduate School of design. There he was influenced by architects Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer and the design style that emerged in the 1930s. To their European modernism, Barnes applied an American touch — "an architecture of restraint that was sensitive both to locality and to materials" according to the Times of London, November 17, 2004
He established his own firm in New York in 1949 and taught at the Pratt Institute in New York and Yale University in Connecticut. He designed a wide range of projects including civic, commercial, educational, and ecclesiastical buildings. Some of the best known are the Walker Art Center (1971) in Minneapolis, Minnesota; 590 Madison Avenue, formerly the IBM Building, in New York City; and the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts on Deer Isle, Maine, for which he won the AIA Twenty-five Year Award in 1994.
In the words of Muriel Emmanuel in her book, Contemporary Architects, Barnes created primarily "monumental buildings which avoid the appearance of coldness or formality. In his work, he exhibits sensitivity to both site and materials."
Emmanuel continues: "He used geometry to order his spaces without restricting them. He meticulously detailed his buildings and simplified complex programs with dominant shapes and homogeneous materials. To further simplify and organize his designs, Barnes used modules. Precast concrete panels, cut stone and glass frequent his designs and help impose modular restrictions."
One reason his design work was so compelling lies, perhaps, in its geometric clarity. He once explained: "A building must have a strong idea that is architectural rather than sculptural or painterly — one that is related to the activity in the building. The idea should be something that can be drawn on a napkin or an envelope. When one architect says to another: 'What kind of a building are you doing?' one should immediately be able to draw an abstraction, or a diagram, of the architectural idea."Edward Larrabee Barnes died on September 21, 2004. He will be commemorated at the American Architectural Foundation Accent on Architecture Gala, February 9, 2007, at the National Building Museum in Washington, DC.