Saturday, January 23, 2010

AIA Salem Design Awards

The Salvation Army, Ray & Joan Kroc Corps Community Center, recipient of a 2009 AIA Salem Honor Award (CB2 Architects with Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture - photo from CB2 website)

I spent this past Thursday evening at the AIA Salem Design Awards banquet, held at the Northwest Viticulture Center on Doaks Ferry Road in Salem. I was at the banquet because I was one of the three jurors who reviewed the projects submitted by AIA Salem member firms. It truly was an honor to be selected to serve as a design juror. I enjoyed the entire experience and the opportunity to evaluate the best recent architecture produced by AIA Salem architects.

The other members of the jury were John Blumthal, AIA, LEED AP, and Alison Kwok, AIA, LEED AP.

John is a principal with Yost Grube Hall Architects of Portland, and the immediate past-president for AIA Oregon. At YGH, John works with both private and public sector clients on a wide assortment of project types. As AIA Oregon president, he led the organization’s efforts through political advocacy to advance thoughtful land-use planning, preservation of historic buildings, urban renewal, and energy efficiency under the “livable communities” banner.

Alison is a professor in the University of Oregon’s Department of Architecture, where she teaches design studios, seminars in climatic design, lighting, and building performance, as well as classes in environmental technology. She is well-known for co-authoring Mechanical and Electrical Equipment for Buildings (a two-time winner of the AIA's Citation for Excellence in International Architecture Book Publishing and the venerated “MEEB” of an infamous YouTube video) and the Green Studio Handbook. Alison also was the recipient of the American Solar Energy Society’s WISE (Women in Solar Energy) Award in 2008.

The three of us convened one day last October to deliberate over the submitted projects at the Blue Pepper Gallery & Internet Café in downtown Salem.

Although the total number of submissions was modest, we were immediately struck by the great diversity of project types and scales represented by the entries. They ranged from small interior renovations to large (by Salem or Eugene standards), complex projects for commercial, healthcare, and public sector clients. Taken as a whole, the quality of the submissions was impressive, so it was a challenge for John, Alison, and me to narrow down the field.

We tried not to bring preconceptions with us to the evaluation process, but our biases soon became evident. Themes common to the best of the projects included:

  • Straightforward and elegant solutions
  • Rational composition
  • Visually cohesive vocabularies
  • Attention to detail
  • Sustainable design principles

We ultimately selected three projects to receive Merit Awards and one to receive an Honor Award. The winning projects are:

Merit Award: Travel Salem’s Travel Café
CB2 Architects
An interior remodel transformed what was once a downtown bridal shop into a dynamic contemporary space. Located within the historic Grand Theater Building, the Travel Café is a unique combination of existing and new. The century old brick walls provide a backdrop for frameless glass walls and specialized electronic displays.

Merit Award: Waterplace
CB2 Architects
Situated on Pringle Creek, Waterplace is an ecologically sensitive project that greatly improves the natural habitat that surrounds it. The 41,000 SF office and retail building is located near Salem’s downtown while featuring dynamic views of the surrounding areas. The second floor is connected to a south-facing roof terrace. The project is seeking LEED Gold certification.

Merit Award: Garmin AT, Inc.
Howard Smith Architect with Anderson Shirley Architects
The Garmin AT project is a renovation and expansion of facilities for the well-known manufacturer of GPS equipment for aviation. The addition doubled the size of the existing building, and accommodates an expanded engineering department, equipment manufacturing floor, conference rooms, and an employee dining/meeting area with a panoramic view of the airport and south Salem hills.

Honor Award: The Salvation Army, Ray & Joan Kroc Corps Community Center
CB2 Architects with Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture
Constructed on an industrial brownfield, the 92,000-square-foot family-oriented Kroc Center includes a competition-sized swimming pool, sports and fitness center, community center space and a 300-seat theater and chapel. The design is dynamic and playful, and an inviting community asset. Sustainability strategies employed by the architects include solar orientation, daylighting, recycled materials, and rainwater recharge on the site.

It’s notable that CB2 Architects had a hand in three of the four projects we recognized. This was a surprise to us because it was not apparent while reviewing the entries that the three were authored by the same office. The jury commends CB2 for the uniformly high quality of its work and looks forward to seeing much more from the firm for years to come.

Overall, none of the winning projects exhibited traits one would associate with avant-garde or cutting-edge architecture; none broke the mold to re-imagine a new approach to designing for the built environment. Instead, like all of the entries in this year’s program, they represent good solutions to the challenges the architects were charged with addressing. It’s our opinion that there is no honor lost in choosing not to pursue the untracked path; instead, there is much to be admired in work that is artfully considered and technically sophisticated, while based upon time-honored design principles.

Our ability to evaluate the relative merits of the submissions was hampered by the limitations of the design awards process. The AIA Salem Design Awards program is by no means unique in this regard. The fundamental question is whether or not it is fair to base our judgment of the projects solely upon narratives and two-dimensional images. While we’d like to believe that the best projects always shine through, we were somewhat at the mercy of the completeness and quality of the photographs, and the persuasiveness of the architects’ written descriptions.

Certainly, a shortcoming of design awards programs is that jurors typically cannot visit all of the projects submitted for review. If John, Alison, and I had the luxury of additional time, we might have seen all of the projects in person since all were a relatively short drive away from our home base at the Blue Pepper. Generally, though, this is not the case, and it would be unjust for jurors to see some entries in person and not others. The irony is that we were left to judge the merits of the Salem projects without the benefit of experiencing them in all of their tectonic, three-dimensional brilliance. We could not walk through the buildings, observe how they are used, or speak with the users. We could not truly engage them as works of architecture.

So, a lesson to take from juried awards programs is that they are inherently flawed. The limitations of the process preclude jurors from fairly appreciating the true merits of each submitted project. Nevertheless, such programs do serve an important function for our profession. Conferring awards provides a vehicle for showcasing to the public what we believe to be exceptional buildings. Design awards help us to celebrate what we do as architects. They are evidence our profession aspires to be the best it can be. They elevate the quality of our work by setting the bar high.

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I’d like to thank Peter Strauhal, AIA Salem President-Elect, for organizing the awards program and inviting me to participate as a juror. Congratulations to CB2 Architects, and to Howard Smith Architect with Anderson Shirley Architects. And thanks to John Blumthal and Alison Kwok – two consummate professionals I greatly admire and respect – for serving on the jury with me.

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