Designing Awards for Their Own

Design awards tend to be self congratulatory, with one hand of a particular social, political or philosophical group usually shaking hands with the other.

This of course is true of most awards in most fields, including journalism. However, except maybe for awards to insurance salespersons, it seems architects are almost always being celebrated, if not by themselves, then by symbiotic enterprises.

There are awards by the local, state and national chapters of the American Institute of Architects and other similar groups, by product manufacturers and by various professional and popular publications with a pecuniary interest in design.

Another reason for the self congratulations might be that few other groups are willing to cite architects for their work, certainly not to praise them. Conspicuously missing from most juries are the users of the structures or spaces, or their neighbors.

The situation makes one a bit wary when sifting through the reams of announcement of awards, checking to see who are the sponsors and the jury members, the purpose of the awards and the basis, if any, for judgments.

After all, the role of a design critic is not to simply rewrite press releases or take as gospel the statements of architects. If anything, experience has taught me that there is often a huge gap of credibility between what architects say and what architects design. Indeed, some architects are much better semanticists and publicists than designers.

Given these prejudices, it was a pleasant surprise to examine the package that came in the mail last week from the National Endowment for the Arts announcing the first Presidential Awards for Design Excellence.

The jury headed by I.M. Pei was well balanced with art historians, engineers and interior designers, as well as architects--users with a variety of perspectives. And the submissions had to be real--designed, constructed and functioning for at least three years, the latter a truer test of design than simply a raft of drawings.

Conceived with a flair by Michael Pittas when he was director of the Endowment's design arts program (he is now dean of the Otis Art Institute here), the awards program is an effort to recognize significant designs generated by the federal government, be they housing projects, bridges, monuments, a prosthetic limb or a highway sign.

Among the 13 winners chosen from 630 entries and announced last Wednesday was a federally subsidized apartment complex in San Mateo, known as the Gardens. It was the only endeavor in California cited in the awards, which also went to a scattered infill housing project in Charleston, S.C. and the federal Art-in-Architecture, among others.

Though constructed 10 years ago, the 186-unit complex-- bordering a freeway on a sloping seven-acre site--still stands as a model for affordable, low-rise, high density housing--a sensitive solution to a pressing social problem. It was designed by the San Francisco architectural firm of Backen Arrigoni & Ross.

Other awards passing across my desk last week included a package from the American Wood Council for its 1984 Non-Residential Renovation and Reconstruction Design Program and an announcement by Interiors magazine proclaiming the "Designer of the Year."

Among the 13 projects chosen by the council for special recognition from 173 entries from across the country was the Cakebread Cellar's winery in Rutherford, Calif., designed by William Turnbull Associates of San Francisco, in which, surprise, wood was used as both a structural and design element.

The "Designer of the Year" award of Interiors Magazine went to Francisco Kripacz, president of the Arthur Erickson Architects, Inc. and principal-in-charge of industrial and interior design in the firm's Los Angeles office. The design of the office by Kripacz was featured in an issue of the magazine last year.

And then there was the heralded, venerable P/A Awards sponsored by Progressive Architecture magazine. Now in its 32nd year, the competition attracted 933 submissions, generating 31 winners in the categories of architectural design, urban design and planning.

In its wisdom, the magazine allows the juries to draw up their own guidelines "based in part on their own perceptions of the design community, and in part upon their individual viewpoints and the group dynamics." All the magazine says it asks for is that the juries "look for excellence."

The jury for the coveted awards in architectural design were author and academician Kenneth Frampton and architects William Pedersen of New York, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk of Miami and Eric Owen Moss of Santa Monica.

A review of the awards and citations indicates that there was no dominant design trend heralded this year, as has been in the last few years with the advent of various "neoism." Instead, judging from their comments, the jurors seemed to have divvied up the honors among peers with whom they share a design philosophy. So what else is new?

Of the 18 design teams honored in the architectural category, three were from Los Angeles. They included Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates, for a drive-in cookie bakery; Frank O. Gehry and Associates, for a small research facility at the University of California, Irvine; and Thom Mayne and Michael Rotoundi of the firm Morphosis, for an addition to a house in Venice.

In his comments, Moss declared that the bakery, which is done in a raw Constructivist style, "raises the issue of the genre of 'junk' buildings that inevitably appear in shopping centers . . . but in a much more sophisticated way."

As for the addition in Venice, Moss appeared to have had to rally to the defense of the design. "I don't understand the opposition," he is quoted as declaring. "I don't know that one has to argue for Constructivism here because this is extraordinary, this Venice alley house. . . . "

Commenting on Gehry's design for the UC facility, Moss explained "what we have here at one level is what I would call an anti-contextual strategy, which, for me . . . is a good strategy, because it actually opposes the dominant campus point of view, which ought to be opposed."

Moss obviously is a good juror for select designers to have in their corner if they want to put another plaque on their office wall.

As for the wall of the structure they designed, whether it creates the space the client needed at a reasonable cost and can stand the test of use and time, that is another matter that does not seem to be considered in most award guidelines-- or, unfortunately, in the design process by many architects.

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