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Henry Klein’s Acceptance Speech

1981 Louis Sullivan Award

The 1981 award to Henry Klein was the sixth Sullivan Award since the award program was created by the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftsmen in 1970 to demonstrate the appreciation of trowel tradesmen for architectural excellence. The Award is made once each two years to the practicing Canadian or U.S. architect whose work over a span of time, and not just in a single building, is deemed to best exemplify the ideals of the late Louis Sullivan, the father of modern architecture. The following is Henry’s acceptance speech, addressing attendees at the Honors Gala.

“President Joyce, Professor Bush-Brown, fellow craftsmen: For you to measure the depth of my surprise and gratitude for the Louis Sullivan Award, I must tell you of the circumstances of my practice, which is small, limited to the county I live in and its adjacent neighbors in the northwest corner of the United States. Those comments of the jury about my work are particularity appreciated: “He has produced a body of work gently fitting the area, serving the community well, doing without theatrics what buildings ought to do.” I never aspired to do more.

From the beginning-I was the first architect in our county-I saw myself as the general practitioner who heals the visual wounds we inflict on ourselves, and in the process hopefully finds himself. For inspiration, I sought no more than the daily occurrences of life; and my only aim was, and still is, to give my clients a building which satisfies their needs. You may ask, “Is this enough for art, for architecture?” Here is no striving for greatness, no thought of current style, or deliberate intention. I am not ashamed of my simple ambition, because it is born of the conviction that it is the events of every day, the small unconscious movements, the faint remembrances, the private looks, the changing light, that are the very stuff that art is made of.

“It is the tiny incremental thoughts of men, Loren Eisely, the anthropologist, wrote, “that tend to congeal in strange vast fabrics, from gladiatorial coliseums to skyscrapers, and then mutely demand relief.”

He found his signs to explain man’s past and fate in rocks, small fossils and the movement of leaves. We each must build our world within the limits of our own experience and from our subconscious past.

Lacking great patrons, I decided early to elevate my clients to that station. I tell them that their commissions are important and that they can make a difference, even though to them their building may seem unimportant in a larger scheme.

My practice increased, not because its results were seen as art, but because the earnestness of my purpose was perceived as honesty; the trust it brought me gave me renewed courage to impress on my patrons the strong belief that building entailed a larger responsibility than to oneself; that no matter how small, the architectural statement carried beyond their property lines, to their neighbors, our town, our region and perhaps even beyond.

It is common now for architects to design buildings on several continents. Armies of designers, engineers, planners, expediters, economic consultants, managers and photographers are listed as the building’s creators. When the building does not measure up or fails, who is responsible? Insurance companies haggle. Lawyers decide. And the firm moves on to ever beckoning new markets.

My limited world calls me to account for every building, even the smallest alteration. Where I live and work, I suffer the consequences of failures, real or perceived, which are not forgotten, misunderstandings which only time will clarify, and I must wait out my reward.

For better or worse, because most of my work is within the sphere of my daily rounds, I see my buildings as time subtly changes them. I suffer the violence done to them in the frustrations of our age and enjoy the spontaneous changes which love and the joy of life imprint on them. And I learn.

As the craftsman’s work is a life’s work, so is the architect’s work. It requires a long-term commitment and a broader goal than the limited task of designing a building. Our true concern must be not only with how our buildings are going to look, but also with how they respond to their use. More than making mere pictures or models, we should aim to make our buildings serve as a setting for people to communicate, to fulfill their aspirations and to let life’s drama be played out in full. This applies to a modest house as well as to large structures. When the building or street we design is used fully and comes to life, I am happy. We have heard it said, we make our buildings and then our buildings make us. Once we declare our profession, we must assume all its consequences.

I sympathize with those of my colleagues who want to humanize architecture. I understand their yearning for popular acceptance of their work. But can this be done easily without flippancy or condescension toward the people who live and work in our buildings? If we strive for more than merely to entertain, people must sense in our work that it is the fruit of patient personal involvement in their lives, that is a result of our common experience reflecting the joy and pain a life-long commitment brings. Only then will they truly make our work their own.

More than once today I have used the words ìearnestî and ìcommitment.î I do not mean to imply that architecture is all seriousness; only the search for it is.

I hope that the few buildings you saw show all the colorful facets of our society, the variety, numerous relationships and the beauty of the world we live in. Here, I want to pay my respects and show my admiration for you craftsmen from whom I learned the nature and limitations of the materials you use and the difficulties of striving to perfect our craft in achieving the goals we set for ourselves.

I remember the masons on my first house. I was not much older than the apprentice whom I found choking back tears of frustration with the clumsiness of his work and the rebukes of his boss.

Nearly 30 years later, we still collaborate on sometimes difficult masonry walls, fireplaces and paving patterns. I work with brick layers, tile setters, plasterers and carpenters whose years of learning their craft paralleled my years of trying to understand my profession. We are friends and we talk about our work like pilgrims on a journey to the same destination.

Wood is the natural material where I live, but where fire resistance, permanence, mass scale in large volume and deep, vibrant colors are called for, we turn to brick for bearing walls or a mantle thrown over a vulnerable frame.

New methods of manufacture have limited rather than expanded the range of colors, textures and shapes of bricks. The scope of your craft has been narrowed, but you still lay each unit one by one, and the end result reflects the work of your hand. Craftsmanship is the touchstone of architecture. It speaks of quality and the striving for perfection. When all the fires have gone out, the spark of craftsmanship glows even in the ruins.

The cry for ever new images has left my profession on the periphery looking for more. You who have made your craft your life’s work remind us that the recognition of limits is not only a constant from which we cannot escape, but is also the center of our art and the reflection of God’s world.

I found courage and confirmation of this architectural philosophy in this quotation from Louis Sullivan’s Kindergarten Chats, whose prose, I confess, I found too thick in my early years, but I now read without embarrassment; “To vitalize building materials, animate them collectively with thought, a state of feeling, to charge them with a subjective significance and value, to make them a visible part of the genuine social fabric, to infuse into them the true life of the people, to impart to them the best that is in people, as the eye of the poet, looking below the surface of life, sees the best that is in the people, such is the real function of the architect.”

Although I hope that poetry has found expression in my work, I lack the courage to say to my clients that I want to lend to the buildings they see merely as necessity, that concentrated clarity only a poet’s eye sees-even when I could remind them of what Louis Sullivan taught us, that our work was the chosen expression of our citizenship. Perhaps your kind and generous recognition will now give me the courage to do so. Thank you very much.”

© HKP architects, and The International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftsmen.