The acclaim of an architect has long been measured in the dazzling, groundbreaking and glamorous creations worthy of Architectural Digest. Yet rarely celebrated are the innerworkings of everyday practice: the small residential project; the dance of landing a new client; the iteration and evolution of drawings. It is these labors that comprise and fuel the bulk of an architect’s work and that often go unrecognized. The unglorified realities of a young practitioner were the inspiration for Lindsey May’s entry in “Housekeeping,” the competition theme for the fortieth cycle of the annual Architectural League’s Prize for Young Architects + Designers. May, the founder of Studio Mayd (pronounced ‘made’), was one of six architects selected to win the 2021 League Prize, considered one of the most prestigious awards in North America.
“I’m very excited about it,” says May, a clinical assistant professor of architecture. “It’s a special recognition and I also feel that its significant in the risk that I thought I was taking in telling a story about learning and process rather than submitting a glamorously shot portfolio. In that way it’s a really meaningful win.”
Established in 1981, the League Prize is an annual portfolio competition, lecture series and exhibition organized by The Architectural League and its Young Architects + Designers Committee to celebrate the work of young architects and designers ten years or less out of a bachelor’s or master’s degree program. Winners are chosen by a distinguished jury of architects, artists and critics, including past League Prize winners. This year’s competition theme, “Housekeeping,” challenged entrants to use the contemplative time of pandemic lockdown to reframe spaces, ritual and the act of tidying up within the design practice.
“We’ve all been occupying our houses with new intensity during the stay-at-home orders and, at the same time, there has been a lot of overdue reflection on the ways we work, teach and practice,” says May. “A deep scrub, or housekeeping, within the profession is really overdue. How can we make the practice of architecture better? It’s a great competition theme for this time.”
May’s direction, which she developed with colleague Julia Klineberg and UMD student interns Amy Lai and Madison Hammer, was inspired by conversations she has been having with other young, small practices around topics that are anything but sexy: infrastructure like billing rates, accounting and small, less glamourous projects that are vital to shoring up the “art and poetry” of design. Iterations of a kitchen layout for a D.C. rowhouse, the breakdown of a project’s human capital and a commentary on Zillow are some of the topics May uses in her portfolio to break down the inherited pomp and circumstance of the architect’s narrative, one May says is not only inaccurate, but can also be damaging and disingenuous.
“We weren’t intent on doing a victory lap with our portfolio submission,” says May. “I worked to pull back from thinking of a portfolio as a trophy case and more as an honest demonstration of what it means to practice. We tried to focus on what we’ve learned and synthesize the learning that comes out of a project instead of only celebrating its built outcome. It was very anxiety-inducing to not put forth any fun or flashy work, things that are usually celebrated and awarded—but beyond the final image, there’s actually a lot to talk about.”
With the country still emerging from the pandemic, this year’s competition will forgo its annual in-person exhibition and lecture series for a virtual exhibition and lectures. May will present her lecture, alongside Palma’s Ilse Cárdenas, Regina de Hoyos, Diego Escamilla and Juan Luis Rivera, on June 29th. She hopes that her colleagues and students see an opportunity for redefining what it means to practice and what should be celebrated; what it means to be an architect, May says, is ready for an overhaul.
“I think what we’ve inherited is the fairytale narrative of practice,” she says. “The award entry was really about adding to the narrative that we have inherited and about creating a more honest and diverse view of the practice and one that’s more inclusive.”