The highest honor given to a U.S. architecture firm goes to a Minnesota studio

By Thomas Fisher, Assoc. AIA

Minnesotans don’t like to brag, but brag we should about having two Minneapolis offices win the AIA National Firm Award this decade—Snow Kreilich Architects in 2018 and VJAA in 2012. The award recognizes the quality of the recipient’s design work, and Snow Kreilich meets that test, having won local and national honors for almost every project they have designed. But it also acknowledges the character of the firm itself, and here, too, Snow Kreilich excels. Founded by Julie Snow, FAIA, in 1995 as one of the state’s first woman-led architecture firms, Snow Kreilich is a place where, as Snow says, “work-life balance matters. You have to give people what they need to do their jobs, including time off.”

That caring for people extends to caring for buildings others often overlook. “We take on underdog building types,” says Matt Kreilich, FAIA, “and try to raise the bar.” In one of the firm’s first award-winning projects, a plastics factory, Julie Snow rethought the traditional division between labor and management and brought them together in a single, light-filled volume. And in one of the firm’s most recent projects, an AIA Minnesota Honor Award–winning highway rest-area facility, Snow Kreilich embraced a building type rarely on the design radar and produced a structure that relates to the vehicles in front of it and the wooded ravine behind it in completely unexpected and delightful ways.

That ability to make the ordinary extraordinary derives in part from what Snow describes as “a culture of experimentation in the office.” It also stems from a belief, says Kreilich, “that there are design opportunities in everything.” But unlike the complex shapes and hard-to-build forms that have come to define architectural experimentation in our era, Snow Kreilich has taken design exploration in the opposite direction, producing very refined, highly restrained, and easily built structures that do more with less. “The problem with the formal experimentation in architecture right now,” says Snow, “is that it doesn’t ask enough interesting questions.”

What constitutes an interesting question? “We like to ask questions about the social and cultural context,” she explains, “questions that exceed our clients’ expectations and that they may not have entertained.” In many ways, the reserved forms and minimal details in Snow Kreilich’s buildings allow the cultural focus of their work to emerge. The muted color and form of the Brunsfield North Loop Apartments (January/February 2014), for instance, highlight the building’s amazing urban gesture: opening the center of the site to the street and blurring the boundaries between public and private space. And the lightness and airiness of CHS Field enables a functional and environmentally responsible ballpark to provide public access through the site and to reimagine the playing field as a civic green space. This “invention within convention,” as Snow puts it, results in buildings that become not only architecturally alluring but also conceptually compelling and socially energizing.

The public understands this. When the Academy of Arts and Letters recognized Julie Snow in 2011 with its architecture award, it used an Einstein quote to describe the firm’s work: “Everything should be made as simple as possible—but no simpler.”That ethic of simplicity infuses the ways in which Snow Kreilich talks about such seemingly mundane things as roof copings and window surrounds and about how minimal these elements can be and still do the job. While that almost obsessive attention to materials and details gives their buildings an appealingly spare character, it seems rooted in pragmatism as much as minimalism: Why use more than you need or show more than you must?

The AIA Firm Award is “an amazing honor,” says Snow, but it doesn’t seem to have turned their head. “We’re the same people, doing the same things,” says Kreilich. “Our clients seem most excited about the award,” he adds with a smile. “Some see it as a confirmation that they made the right decision in selecting us.” Nor will it likely alter the firm’s commitment to the national design community. Snow Kreilich staff have lectured, taught, juried, or volunteered at some point in nearly every state, so the appearances that go with winning the AIA Firm Award may seem, to them, par for the course.

At the same time, the firm remains happily rooted in Minneapolis, a place that allows them to stay “intensely focused on the work,” says Snow. This award has value, she adds, if it inspires all firms “to recommit to practicing with intensity and to believing in design’s importance to the world.”Arkansas architect Marlon Blackwell, FAIA, wrote in his nomination of Snow Kreilich that “honoring them with this award will honor us all,” and so it will if all firms see this recognition of one firm as an affirmation of what many firms in Minnesota already do: care about their work and care for their people.

A selection of Snow Kreilich’s national design awards.

CHS Field
St. Paul, Minnesota
2016 AIA Institute Honor Award
2015 Best New Ballpark, Ballpark Digest

U.S. Land Port of Entry
Van Buren, Maine
2016 AIA Institute Honor Award
2014 GSA Design Excellence Award

U.S. Land Port of Entry
Warroad, Minnesota
2014 AIA COTE Top Ten Award
2011 AIA Institute Honor Award
2010 GSA Design Excellence Award