Van Alen Institute's legacy as a center for design innovation, bridging architectural education and professional practice, is central to the Institute's history and to its growth as a cultural institution.
Van Alen Institute provides free public access to its ongoing work and historical materials through its programs, Design Archive, and Reading Room.
The Institute was founded in 1894 as the Society of Beaux-Arts Architects by a group of Ecole des Beaux-Arts alumni dedicated to establishing a rigorous and highly competitive atelier-based architectural curriculum modeled after the French school. Available free of charge to any student admitted, the design ateliers proved enormously influential. By 1912, an independent network of over 100 ateliers existed throughout the United States, where thousands of students and young professionals annually received courses of architectural instruction from well-established American architects. Courses revolved around a series of increasingly demanding competitions and design challenges, culminating in the nationally recognized Paris Prize in Architecture which supported study at the Ecole for its annual recipient.
The Paris Prize firmly established the design competition as an important educational tool for American architecture students. As professional education in America increasingly shifted from the atelier system to colleges and universities, the Paris Prize and its affiliated fellowships continued to engage students in architecture programs across the country.
In 1916, the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design was founded by the Society of Beaux-Arts Architects in cooperation with the National Sculpture Society and Society of Mural Painters. The BAID was chartered by the Regents of the State of New York as an educational organization and became responsible for all competitions except the Paris Prize and for producing ateliers in sculpture and painting. The Society of Beaux-Arts Architects remained in existence as a social organization and overseer of the BAID until dissolution in 1942.
Following the rise of the Bauhaus and International Style in schools of architecture throughout the country, the Institute was renamed in 1956 as the National Institute for Architectural Education (NIAE). The NIAE eschewed fixed alignment with any design school or movement, favoring instead a commitment to design competitions and fellowships eliciting diverse and imaginative design work from students and young architects throughout the country. Through a broad program of educational activities and an expanded awards program, including the Van Alen Memorial Prize and the Dinkeloo Fellowship at the American Academy in Rome, the Institute functioned as a critical resource and facilitator to formal architectural education across the country. For the next four decades, the NIAE posed a wide spectrum of design challenges and projects. From an 'Antarctican Community' to a 'Space Research Museum,' its programs and activities reflected the modernist expansion of civic space as an architectural domain unfettered by the monumental public building.
In 1995, the Institute was named in honor of William Van Alen, architect of the Chrysler Building and recipient of the Institute's 1908-1909 Paris Prize. Since that time, Van Alen Institute has focused its work on the evolving role of architecture in the public realm while continuing to cultivate a fellowship of practitioners and scholars and award excellence in design.
Today, Van Alen Institute is dedicated to critical inquiry surrounding contemporary forms of public space. Our public design competitions and related programming serve as valuable forums for both established and emerging voices to shape the ongoing debate about design in the public realm. Lectures, public programs, publications, and interactive platforms in turn promote public engagement with the Institute.
Born in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in 1883, William Van Alen studied at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and later worked in the office of Clarence True. In 1908, Van Alen won the Paris Prize in Architecture, the highest award granted by the Society of Beaux-Arts Architects, in a competition for the design of a theater. The Paris Prize included a fellowship to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where Van Alen became a student in the atelier of Victor Laloux. In 1911, Van Alen returned to New York, where in 1914 he opened an architecture practice with H. Craig Severance. The firm designed several retail shops and restaurants in New York until 1925, when Van Alen and Severance ended their partnership due to ongoing conflicts.
Van Alen is best known for his design of the Chrysler Building, an Art Deco skyscraper built from 1928-1930 for Walter P. Chrysler at Lexington Avenue and 42nd Street in Manhattan. Conceived as a tribute to the industrial age and the thriving automobile industry, the building was the tallest skyscraper in New York City for just under a year prior to the completion of the Empire State Building in May 1931.
Although the Chrysler Building is now a beloved New York City icon, Van Alen did not benefit from its glory. Walter Chrysler and Van Alen were known to have had a contentious relationship, and when the Chrysler Building opened in 1930 Van Alen's name went unmentioned. Van Alen experimented with speculative prefabricated housing for National Housing, Inc. in the mid-1930s, however very little is known about any later work and a comprehensive biography of his life does not exist.
William Van Alen died largely without recognition in 1954, and after the death of his wife Elizabeth Bloodgood Van Alen in 1970, a majority of the Van Alen Estate was left to the National Institute of Architectural Education (the organization that the Society of Beaux-Arts Architects had become). His bequest established the "William Van Alen, Architect Memorial Fund" for educational scholarships, and in 1996 the organization was renamed Van Alen Institute in honor of this legacy.