Local architect receiving award at White House

Johnpaul Jones has shaped major projects from the Northwest to the nation's capital.
Johnpaul Jones

Johnpaul Jones Courtesy of Jones and Jones Architects

Local architect honored at White House event

Seattle architect Johnpaul Jones will be shaking hands with President Obama on Monday. During a formal, black-tie ceremony, Jones will receive the prestigious Medal for Outstanding Achievements from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Rarely if ever awarded to designers, the medal typically is conferred each year on a handful of scholars, writers, poets and educators. Architects are usually recognized through the National Endowment for the Arts, which will be giving its annual awards at the same ceremony.

What attracted the attention of the National Endowment for the Humanities to Jones was his tremendous body of work spanning four decades and addressing cultural issues of import to our nation. Choctaw by heritage, Jones was the designer of the National Museum of the American Indian, which is a part of the Smithsonian and sits a stone’s throw from the nation’s Capitol.  Its sinuous, organic form contrasts sharply with the more tailored and tightly rectilinear museums that flank other portions of the National Mall.

The National Museum of the American Indian

Jones’ contributions to Native American culture extend back many years and his work is found in many parts of the country, including a soon-to-be completed project for the Agua Caliente tribe in Palm Springs, California. After receiving a Bachelor of Architecture from the University of Oregon in 1967, went on to practice, acquiring licenses in eight states. He has garnered numerous awards from professional and cultural organizations. He is one of the partners in the architectural firm of Jones & Jones, which has maintained a solid presence in Pioneer Square for decades.

In Washington state, Jones’ work includes the serpentine “land bridge” near downtown Vancouver, which elegantly vaults over Highway 14 to create a pedestrian connection between the Columbia River waterfront and Fort Vancouver. Landscape Architecture Magazine featured it a few years ago as a unique example of bridge design, following Jones’ notion of fusing structure with the landscape.

In the Seattle area, Jones is especially proud of his involvement with the Woodland Park Zoo, which includes a natural habitat area for elephants. His path-breaking approach to the redesign of zoos has influenced many other zoological parks, as well as an entire cadre of younger designers. His essential idea is to minimize the intrusion of visitors in what is basically a home for animals.

Also in the Seattle metro area is the delightful Environmental Education Center located along the east edge of the Mercer Slough in Bellevue. A cluster of simple pavilions, connected by walkways amidst a wooded hillside, overlooks wetlands that are rich with wildlife and water-related vegetation. Walking through the complex, you have an impression of floating above the sloping terrain. This reflects Jones’s desire to tread lightly on the landscape.

Mercer Slough Environmental Education Center 

Over a lunchtime conversation this week, Johnpaul shared his approach to design. He is constantly seeking meanings inherent in the land. He views his design through four lenses:  the natural world, the animal world, the spirit world, and the human world. His work gives dignity and expression to all of them. Moreover, he wants his projects to tell stories – stories of ecology, economy, and community.

Through the NEH award, his work has been rightly recognized as making better places for all living things to inhabit.

Photos courtesy of Jones and Jones Architects and Landscape Architects.

Mark Hinshaw, FAIA, is an architect and urban planner at a Seattle architecture firm. He was an architecture critic for "The Seattle Times" and is the author of many articles and books, including "Citistate Seattle" (1999). He can be reached at editor@crosscut.com.


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