Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Design Excellence 2014

AIA-SWO members and colleagues gathered at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts for the 2014 AIA-SWO Design Awards dinner, Thursday, May 22 (my photo)

Last Thursday evening was a fabulous one on the AIA-Southwestern Oregon calendar. Not only did our chapter celebrate the best work produced by its own, it also further honed its message regarding the importance of design excellence.  It’s hard to put into words, but I distinctly sensed that AIA-SWO is coming of age and poised on the edge of something special. 

AIA-SWO Design Excellence Committee program coordinator Kaarin Knudson, Assoc. AIA said it best: quality matters. By this, Kaarin meant not only the quality of the Design Excellence presentations but also the quality of the best work we produce every day. The quality of our architecture influences the health and vitality of our communities, shaping our lives and those of our families, friends, and neighbors. Although some may be inclined to contend otherwise, it is far from being elitist, naïve, or foolhardy of us to pursue design excellence.

More than ever before, people are realizing design excellence is a necessary investment in the creation of a prosperous, cohesive, and harmonious society. They’re learning the pursuit of excellence need not be an expensive or aimless folly. They’re coming to understand that design excellence is a verb as well as a noun, inasmuch as it is a state of action and a means to an end. Accordingly, our duty as architects is to provide the leadership toward design excellence our families, friends, and neighbors are expecting of us.

By pairing the 2014 Design Awards program with the second installment of the Design Excellence Committee’s Making Great Cities series of presentations, AIA-Southwestern Oregon demonstrated a growing appreciation of its role as a thought leader in our community. As an organization, AIA-SWO does enjoy the imprimatur of professional standing and tradition. It does have the power to influence policy-makers and positively shape future development. AIA-SWO is learning to flex its muscles and is making a difference. This is healthy for everyone and a great thing to see. 

Making Great Cities 
The AIA-SWO Design Excellence committee established the Making Great Cities series with the goal of creating a forum for community discussions about the built environment. The first installment last fall featured architect and former mayor of Charlottesville, VA Maurice Cox, FAIA. His primary message was that architects must act as leaders to ensure design excellence is at the center of any discussion about the future of our cities. Fundamentally, it is his belief that exercising leadership is the way to build a constituency for design excellence and influence a community to confront its adaptive challenges—those gaps between a community’s values and the current reality that cannot be closed by routine behavior. 

The spotlight of last Thursday’s second Making Great Cities presentation in the Soreng Theater at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts shined on Carol Coletta, vice president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and former director of ArtPlace and president of CEOs for Cities. Like Maurice Cox before her, Carol also served as executive director of the Mayor’s Institute on City Design. She has spoken extensively on the future of cities, including how communities develop, attract, and retain talent.

Carol Coletta

Carol entitled her talk “Talent+Opportunity+Place.” One of her goals was to emphasize the importance of making informed decisions about our communities in the face of pervasive misinformation. Additionally, she called attention to how broad, distributed leadership (the kind we as architects can provide) is necessary to get anything done. As she explained, the days of top-down leadership—when a handful of rich, white guys could call the shots—are no more.

Carol sounded a precautionary note. Too much about how we arrive at decisions is based upon contrasting realities and myths. Our challenge is to sort through the media flotsam and determine what’s real and what is not. A case in point: Carol cited the all too common meme today that questions whether higher education and acquiring a college degree is still worth it given the mounting costs of tuition. Of course it is, but an alarming number of pundits point to the example of famous dropouts like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs as exceptions that belie the value of matriculation. “College is for suckers” they say. Likewise, we’ve been brainwashed by a constant barrage of fear-inducing news reports regarding crime. The reality is the incidence of crime in cities across the nation is actually on the decline. We shouldn’t allow the fear of myths to dictate very real decisions affecting the future of our communities.

Carol firmly believes an informed and engaged community is essential to a strong democracy. The key is getting the information right to begin with and to the right people. Misinformation keeps communities distracted and confused, but it will be in the disruptive changes that are cultivating the misinformation around us that we will find positive leverage.

The kinds of disruptive changes we are seeing include radical advancements in technology and rapid evolution of media for communications. Consider the fact that a young child today has never known a world without powerful smart phones. Or think a moment about the increasing number of young adults who no longer consider possessing a driver’s license as necessary. These aren’t small changes and they have impacted everyone. They call for innovation, focus, and a re-calibration of what constitutes a successful community. 

A key disruptor within contemporary society is the ease of mobility we enjoy. It’s very easy, particularly for younger people, to seek out the places they find most attractive (they often prioritize selecting a desirable urban core within which to live before looking for available jobs). This is especially true for the best and brightest of this youthful and mobile cohort, so attracting and retaining young talent has become essential to the economic strategies of the most savvy cities and towns. These communities focus on this young talent, not because it’s hip or cool to do so, but for the reason that without young, well-educated professionals their ability to compete effectively is severely compromised. 

Carol pointed out how fortunate we are in Eugene because we are blessed by the presence of a major university and other institutions of higher learning. Our challenge is to continue to develop a community that not only attracts the most promising students from around the country and the world, but also keeps them here after they graduate. Good places attract and retain good talent.

Good places are also accelerators for opportunity. It is in the realm of opportunity that misinformation has frequently prevailed. Well-meaning planners have too often concentrated services for those in need, resulting in de facto socio-economic segregation by geography. Carol believes this is precisely the wrong strategy for improving access to opportunity: access to the best education, employment, and upward mobility. She advocates developing economically integrated neighborhoods because economic segregation has fundamentally proven to be a disaster and the antithesis of a city comprised of vibrant neighborhoods. Zip code alone should not dictate a person’s destiny; if it is allowed to do so, the American dream is dead. 

Carol pointed out that disadvantaged people who live in economically integrated neighborhoods are the ones who attain and exercise upward economic mobility. Integrated neighborhoods typically provide access to better public services, feature stronger political advocates, are home to the best public schools, and foster broader support networks among neighbors. Diversity of educational levels also tends to benefit those with less education. The combination of talent and opportunity is exceedingly powerful, and it is investment in place that nurtures and allows their grouping to flourish. 

Carol concluded her talk with the following three questions, each one a criterion for evaluating each decision we make as a community:
  • Will this decision increase the supply of talent?
  • Will this decision increase economic integration?
  • Will we know we made the right choices for the common good?
The bottom line is investing in place is an economic development strategy because attracting talent needs to be at the heart of the strategy. We need to design for economic integration because providing ample opportunities for upward mobility is likewise a key to economic vitality and resilience. And the key is creating the kinds of places people want to live, work, and play in. This is the opportunity our profession is embracing. Let’s grab the brass ring, demand high standards of ourselves, and become the leaders our communities need. 

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I commented previously when discussing the first Making Great Cities presentation (by Maurice Cox) that broadening the discussion about design excellence and its value to Eugeneans is precisely the message we need to hear. Carol Coletta definitely reinforced this point. So far, the high quality of the Making Great Cities series has me confident there will soon be community consensus regarding design excellence as a political imperative. Thanks to the efforts of the AIA-SWO Design Excellence committee, that critical mass is quickly approaching. 

If you were unable to attend Carol Coletta’s lecture, you’re in luck because it was jointly produced by the AIA-SWO Design Excellence committee and City Club of Eugene. As with all of its meetings, City Club records the proceedings for later broadcast on KLCC. City Club is a natural partner for the Design Excellence Committee as both groups seek to provide credible analyses of community issues, foster creative problem solving, honor diverse perspectives, arouse appreciation for the obligations of citizenship, and stimulate informed community decision-making and constructive action.

Here’s the link to the recorded broadcast: 

The Design Excellence Program is a volunteer-led effort by the AIA-SWO Design Excellence committee. The committee thanks the program sponsors and partners—Lane Transit District, the University of Oregon School of Architecture & Allied Arts, and City Club of Eugene—for their assistance in making the Making Great Cities series of presentations a reality. Look for the next event this fall! 

2014 AIA-Southwestern Oregon Design Awards
AIA-SWO’s members and colleagues turned out in fine fashion for the 2014 Design Awards dinner and presentation. The production was first-rate in all respects, from the backdrop of the Hult Center’s soaring lobby to the excellent cuisine provided by Marché. Most importantly, the jury’s commentary and selections were equal to the setting and more than met expectations bred by five long years of anticipation since the last AIA-SWO design awards program.

The jury—consisting of Carol Coletta (fresh off her Making Great Cities appearance), Laura Hafermann, AIA, Dennis McFadden, FAIA, and chair David Tryba, FAIA—selected a total of 13 projects to receive awards. Of these, the jury recognized two student projects (this being the first time for a student design award category). The projects selected for the professional categories included six Citation Awards, three Merit Awards, and two Honor Awards (the AIA’s highest commendation). Rowell Brokaw Architects was the evening’s big winner, taking home an unprecedented seven total awards.

Student Awards:

Annie Chiang
Back On Track: Modular Post Office

Kyle Stuart-Willis & Jiawei Mai
Transporting Miami

Citation Awards:

Rowell Brokaw Architects, PC
EWEB Riverfront Master Plan

Rowell Brokaw Architects, PC
University Of Oregon Zebrafish Core Facility

PIVOT Architecture
Architects’ Office

PIVOT Architecture
Richardson Sports Headquarters

Rowell Brokaw Architects, PC
First On Broadway Adaptive Re-Use

Photo: Christian Columbres
Robertson/Sherwood/Architects, PC
with SRG Partnership & Pyatok Architects

Merit Awards:

Rowell Brokaw Architects, PC: 

Photo: Christian Columbres
Rowell Brokaw Architects, PC

Honor Awards:

Photo: Christian Columbres

You can find complete slide presentations for each of the winning projects at the AIA-Southwestern Oregon website by clicking this link. The entrants furnished all of the photographs I’ve used here in this blog post and in the slide presentations. I’d like to credit all of the photographers but I simply do not have complete information for attribution; I’ll make sure to add photo credits for all the images once I have them.

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Some critics deride design awards programs for creating false meritocracies, being superficial beauty contests, and reflecting the biases of specific juries. Having sat on the other side of the table myself,
(1) I know the limitations of the process preclude a complete appreciation for the entirety of each submitted project’s virtues. Nevertheless, conferring awards does showcase 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.

For AIA-Southwestern Oregon, there’s no doubt Rowell Brokaw Architects has raised that bar to its highest level ever. The quality of the firm’s work speaks for itself. RBA is ascendant. We can expect much more of the same in the years to come. This is another reason why design awards programs are a good thing. Healthy competition between firms—vying for recognition as the best of the best—also engenders vigorous and healthy discussions about the nature and definition of design excellence. We’re all winners when this happens.

Five years is far too long between one AIA-SWO design awards program and the next. We can blame the debilitating Great Recession for its protracted absence. Abbreviating the cycle to every three years would be ideal. I know I am not alone in looking forward to the next edition and once again recognizing and celebrating the best work of AIA-Southwestern Oregon member firms.

(1)   I’ve enjoyed the pleasure of serving as a juror for three different awards programs: The 2009 AIA-Salem Design Awards, the 2012 Hammurabi Design Awards, and Architectural Record’s 2012 Excellence in Advertising Awards.

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