Okay, I promised myself I would leave this alone. But I can’t help myself, so pardon my sarcasm and generalization ahead. Glossy magazine awards and AIA award programs showcase amazing unique houses each year. We love them, yet hate them. These edgy projects are part of a self-perpetuating cycle where the juries choose their favorites each year rather than consider the broader public’s opinion. It’s an architectural equivalent to Amish friendship bread that never ends.
Let’s think a bit deeper here about the criticism from architects about these awards. What is the real issue here? Why are we agitated by this? One issue is custom “traditional” houses are commonly overlooked. I’m not trying to tackle that issue today except to say that unique contemporary houses getting all of the attention is getting architects in a dither. It’s also accepting that the honored selections are not intended to be prototypical for mass public consumption but something else entirely.
After the release of the American Institute of Architects 10 recipients of the 2012 Housing Awards as published in the Huffington Post we find an outcry of comments on the AIA’s HKC discussion panel. Similar discussions are brewing related to Residential Architect Magazine’s Design Awards 2012. Why can’t a magazine hold an awards program however they wish? Why can’t AR publish their April Record Houses issue and select odd or avant-garde houses each year? We know these awards go to unusual modern houses that are commissioned by wealthy people. Is that criminal or may I say pernicious? Wouldn’t all of us architects take on these commissions with enthusiasm? I’m willing to say I would for the most part. Again, the lack of ‘style-blind’ is probably at the heart of many criticisms. That is an important issue, but how much time do you really have to read this?
I have seen the terms progressive, innovative, creative, and unique show up either in the awards brief of in the editorials that follows. That may or may not be true, but I’d really be impressed if they just admitted they were looking for cool houses and ended it. Spare me the rhetoric otherwise. Now, not to vacillate on this issue, but just because these houses may not fit the profile of what an ordinary person may be or want to live in, we shouldn’t stop making and celebrating the vision that goes into them. Think back through architectural history and consider how many remarkable buildings wouldn’t exist if we were mere pragmatists in our approach. What kind of nut-case needs a pyramid that’s almost 500 feet tall and over 700 feet wide as a burial tomb? Ms. Farnsworth and Mr. Kauffmann didn’t really want to spend that much and could have done without the temperamental attitudes. Now we all gush at the houses that resulted from the tumultuous relationships and excessive expenditures.
Let’s accept for a moment that the magazines are showcasing architecture that may stand the test of time and tell future generations something important about our times, and then the opportunity of having a client allowing us to create something new and extraordinary should be acknowledged somewhere. But let’s be honest about our intentions. If we are merely recognizing expensive and elitist boxes that are sculptural, engaging and eye-catching, then fair enough. They may be thought-provoking and even polemic. However, when we try to promote them as functional, energy-efficient and practical, then we can see the Emperor has no clothes.
Some liken the winning houses to unusual fashion; it grabs attention on a runway and gets awarded by those in the industry. However, the average person would not wear these clothes let alone afford them. Many lack practicality and comfort in the minds of the general public. I actually had a friend ask me recently about the AR Record House issue. She made the fashion analogy which is a good way to begin to describe it. I’ve used this analogy myself, but I find it breaks down because architecture has to deal with more issues. Safety is a good one that comes to mind. Fashion comes and goes and we change our wardrobes. However, architecture should last for centuries and we are stewards of the built environment for such a small portion of its life.
Another issue that comes up with awards is sustainability. Most if not all awards programs state that the buildings should demonstrate sustainable concepts and features. Well, what does that mean? It seems that some of these use a “sledge-hammer to drive a finish nail.” In other words, if we have to overcompensate for the un-insulated walls of glass and over use of resources to build double stud walls, double glass walls, and other tacked on features, how is that really being sustainable? The gizmo green features cost more to “fix” designs that are inherently un-sustainable. What happened to common sense and smart design principles…even if they don’t get LEED points? I’m all for the cool looking house, but if it’s a stretch to call many of them environmentally friendly; let’s not kid ourselves anymore. Let’s just call it a cool house and appreciate it for what it is.
The last side of this issue is dealing with the average, the common, and Joe the Plumber. Can design finally reach them; should it? If so should it receive awards?
We didn’t seem to do much complaining as architects while we were fat, dumb and happy during rich times. Now that the bottom fell out and we can’t find a paying job, we’re all crying the blues that we have no part in the housing market. The speculative housing market is poorly designed with “lick-and-stick” features made of vinyl and other fake materials. Appraisers won’t take our “good design” principles into consideration for the worth of the house, so the home-owner can’t justify paying more for design or a designer. The mass production/pre-fabrication housing industry is still as much a mystery as Big Foot so trying to go down that avenue is still years away. However, I think it has much merit. The housing industry is being run by people with a different motive and different set of skills (to use the term lightly). Houses are out of scale and out of touch with their neighbors and with being human. However we ivory tower architects swoop down and offer white flat roof boxes that are adored as much as a bad rash. At least “plan-book-America” feels more familiar to the public despite my utter disdain for it. Can we find a balance here?
If it is our job to create the future or at least lead the way, what is the answer? How do we present ourselves and our value to a public that sees us as an enigma? Do we ignore it and remain the black clothing donned intellectuals touting our polemic of an ignorant world that doesn’t appreciate us? Is the media or the AIA to blame? Should they lead the charge?
Let those that do unique houses continue. Let them alone and let their clients alone. It is America after all right? If I design some of them, so be it. If you don’t like their awards programs ignore them, boycott them if it makes you happy. However, don’t sit and stew over it. Do something. Start a new awards program. Lobby your local AIA or state AIA and demand a broader spectrum of awards in order to get the public to see that we can design anything and everything. Otherwise, we’re just whiny oddballs and it’s getting on my nerves.
photo 1 is © Iwan Baan for UN Studio
photo 2 is © Steve King for XTen Architecture
photo 3 is © Bill Timmerman for DCHGlobal Inc
photo 4 is © Cook + Fox Architects
photo 5 is © Tim Van De Velde for Govaert and Vanhoutte Architects