AIA Chicago Announces 2020 Design Excellence Winners


Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture’s Chicago Architecture Center (Citation of Merit, Interior Architecture Award)

Designight goes virtual: Online award program honors 36 projects by Chicago architecture firms found locally and worldwide

For the first time in the event’s 65-year history, the Chicago chapter of the American Institute of Architects’ (AIA Chicago) Design Excellence Awards was conducted in an online format honoring the city’s outstanding architectural projects at Designight 2020. The annual celebration, attended virtually by hundreds of architecture, engineering and construction industry leaders, was presented by Chicago television personality, producer and WTTW host, Geoffrey Baer.

“Against the backdrop of a chaotic year punctuated by global and local upheaval, the unwavering impact of design and its power to understand, uplift and unify the people that it serves is felt deeply. It is important to honor the meaningful achievements and advancements of Chicago’s dynamic A&D community as they anticipate and provide for what the future holds,” said AIA Chicago Vice President of Honors and Awards, Jennifer Park, AIA.

This year, 39 awards were presented to projects in three categories: Distinguished Building, Divine Detail and Interior Architecture.

Nine nationally renowned architects acted as jurors, evaluating hundreds of entries before selecting the winning projects. Each winning project received a specific distinction with its award. Honor Awards denote AIA’s highest distinction, emphasizing that Honor Award projects embody all elements of excellent design. Citations of Merit denote accomplished projects where the jury may have been divided, while the Special Recognition category is bestowed by juror nomination, in which a project is recognized for a specific strength or accomplishment.

“This year’s entries represented a return to community-first ideas, spurred by the lessons this tumultuous year has quite uncompromisingly taught. Environments across both the commercial and civic fields have committed to empathetic, human-centered spaces, with firms prioritizing enduring and intuitive projects that are not only beautiful but conscientious,” noted the jury.

Among these community-centric designs are, Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture’s Chicago Architecture Center (Citation of Merit, Interior Architecture Award)Lothan Van Hook DeStefano Architecture’s Wolcott School (Honor, Distinguished Building Award); Solomon Cordwell Buenz (SCB)’s Arizona State University, Tooker House (Citation of Merit, Distinguished Building Award).

Other awards recognized projects ranging from flagship restaurants and transit to student dining halls and libraries, including:

  • EXP’s CTA Garfield Elevated Station Renovation (Chicago, IL):
    Honor, Interior Architecture Award, and Special Recognition for Public Art Integration, Distinguished Building Award
    The Garfield Elevated Station is one of the oldest transit stations in the country. The Gateway Renovation project creates a new iconic gateway to the Washington Park community in Chicago’s South Side with the restoration and re-purposing of the original historic stationhouse as a community-based arts facility, and major renovation of the active station to benefit 475,000 riders, bicyclists and pedestrians, while supporting the ongoing revitalization of the community.
  • Gensler’s Columbia College Student Center (Chicago, IL):
    Honor, Distinguished Building Award and Citation of Merit, Interior Architecture Award
    The new 114,000-square-foot student center is the second purpose-built building in Columbia College’s 130 year history. It was designed to both provide an emphatic center to the disparate campus and to magnify the energy and creativity found within it. As an arts building, it was designed to “connect” rather than “collect,” creating visual awareness and opportunities for spontaneous interaction within the building thus allowing students to sample a multitude of distinct perspectives.
  • John Ronan Architects’ Independence Library and Apartments (Chicago, IL):
    Honor, Distinguished Building Award and Divine Detail Award
    This LEED Gold hybrid library/affordable housing project in Chicago combines a 16,000 square foot branch library with a 44-unit affordable apartment complex for senior citizens. The two-story library element abuts the property line, while the residential block is set back from the street, creating an entry courtyard for both uses. Using color as a unifying detail in the interiors and exteriors, the building creates a sense of individuality for residents.
  • Perkins + Will’s Lisle Elementary School (Lisle, IL):
    Citation of Merit, Distinguished Building Award
    Lisle, Illinois is known for its lush greenery, so the intent for its new school was a collaborative learning environment that prioritizes sustainability while fitting within the environmental context. With climate resilience and safety top of mind, designers chose environmentally responsive solutions that optimize transparency, daylighting, and security.
  • Wheeler Kearns’ Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School Expansion (Chicago, IL):
    Citation of Merit, Distinguished Building Award and Honor, Divine Detail Award
    After decades of sharing a small, inconspicuous entrance with their partnering synagogue, BZAEDS expanded to establish an identity and entrance of their own—unifying an existing assemblage of dark masonry buildings with a tall, singular glass and brick volume that floats above the ground floor. Timeless Jewish principles are woven and thoughtfully placed throughout; underfoot, wrapping the head, framing eyes, and shaping the heart of the school.
Phillip Craig Johnson

This year’s Lifetime Achievement Award was presented to Phillip Craig Johnson, FAIA. A mentor, firm leader and trailblazing architect, Johnson has 44 years of experience in a variety of architectural areas prior to and since co-founding the firm, Johnson & Lee, Ltd. In 2005, Johnson was elevated by the American Institute of Architects to the College of Fellows and has served on the Board of AIA Chicago and as an advisor to the Illinois Chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects (INOMA).

All Design Excellence Award-winning projects will be featured in Chicago Architect magazine and highlighted in a presentation that includes all awards submissions on the AIA Chicago website, where you can also watch the awards presentation.


The American Institute of Architects Chicago (AIA Chicago) is the largest chapter of licensed architects, architectural interns, and allied professionals within AIA Illinois, and the second largest AIA chapter in the country.

AIA Chicago offers lectures and continuing education courses; numerous award programs; specialized, issue-specific Knowledge Communities; advocacy for architects; daily communications online and through its in-house magazine, Chicago Architect; and help for consumers looking for an architect.

As a resource for its members in service to society, AIA Chicago promotes positive change through the power of design.