ARCCA Archives, Specialist|

arcCA 01.1, “Awarding Honor.”] Author Barton Phelps, FAIA, is Adjunct Professor in the School of the Arts and Architecture at UCLA, principal in the Los Angeles firm of Barton Phelps & Associates, and a member of the arcCA editorial board. In 1996 he chaired the national AIA Committee on Design and prior to that was chair of the Awards Task Group that restructured the Honor Awards Program to make it more inclusive of diversity in architectural practice. __________ Anyone who has ever entered an AIA design awards program knows the vast amount of work and expense it can devour. Anxiety about what to show and what to write drags the process out like self- inflicted water torture. Entrants wrestle with how to communicate—in a flash—the significance of years of work. The unseen jurors, luminary architects from around the country, range in disposition from friendly to satanic. On the receiving end, the jury faces an opposing dilemma. The conscientious juror (most are, I think) wonders how, in the space of a day or two, to comprehend honestly the form and operations—let alone the full significance—of three hundred or so hard-wrought but variously skewed entries. Then there is the challenge of hacking out some sort of meaningful consensus with three or four other strong-willed designer/critics, any two of whose approaches might claim polar opposition. Reports of the antics of certain jurors, ugly confrontations and famous refusals to abide by the rules, even sudden disappearances are legendary. The possibilities for wonderfully varied arrays of winners as well as for disconnects, meltdowns, and weird results are equally present in this old fashioned, long-distance dialogue between entrant and jury. Notoriously flawed dynamics notwithstanding, busy architects continue to offer up their psychic and professional energies to programs like the AIACC 2000 Design Awards, doggedly following the circuit of annual competitive events. The display of talent and energy that is generated is impressive and laudable but, given the actual payoff, one has to suspect that the real attraction would make for interesting psychological diagnosis. Apart from the exhilaration that triumphant award recipients deservedly feel, the process often verges on anticlimax for entrants and observers alike. Winning is probably the only antidote for having no sense of what actually transpired in the traditionally closed-door deliberations. Except in cases where jurors appear to be close mental clones, the results of the jury often remain curious—tainted by suspicions of brokering, begging for thoughtful analysis that seldom follows. Part of the problem seems to reside with the dynamics of the jury and its members’ differing takes on architectural judgment and artistic elitism. Often, however, confusion about results can be traced back beyond the jury to a lack of clarity in the intentions of the awards program itself. The AIA has been trying to perfect its aims for these events since the first annual Honor Awards program was held in 1949. Occasionally since then, organizers of awards programs have taken time to try to figure out what it all means. One attempt occurred a few years back at the national AIA level when the Awards Task Group of the Committee on Design was asked to respond to member dissatisfaction with the Honor Awards. It was the familiar litany of complaints about juries— limited receptivity to many types of work, bias toward projects with prior recognition and their well-known authors, conscious de-emphasis of practical issues, and so on. The solution proposed by the disgruntled was the creation of more awards—usually in the form of programs limited to highly specialized building types on which their own practices focused. Fearful of runaway awards proliferation and a lessening of the true distinction of Honor Awards, the task group scrambled for alternatives. As a first step, the group read the official “Call for Entries” with an eye for truth in advertising. When its wide open invitation, with its suggestion that all types of projects have an equal chance of winning, was compared with lists of actual recent winners, it became obvious that the problem required a more fundamental response. The overall intentions and operations of the awards program needed clarification for both entrants and jurors. While some would argue that judgments of architectural quality justifiably operate outside the realm of rational analysis, this particular task group included veteran jurors and award winners who were willing to broaden the definition of exemplary architectural activity. The old empowering slogan of connoisseurship—the work of art transcends the artist—was found less useful than the much hipper poststructuralist motto—all interpretation is misinterpretation. In the end, the task group sought ways to lessen jury autonomy by increasing the precision of communication between entrants and jurors. It urged adoption of a more carefully structured approach both to jury operations and to the dissemination of the results. Many of their recommendations, notably the switch from building types to types of design emphasis—technical, societal, environmental, historic, formal innovation—have been implemented to one degree or another in the AIA design awards programs at the national and component levels. Here are some observations that emerged from those discussions: Intentions Two distinct sets of intentions—internalizing and externalizing—are served by design awards programs. Internalizing intentions focus attention on exemplary architectural activity in order to inform other architects and elevate the general quality of practice (an act of sharing). They also establish a standard of excellence against which architects can measure their own performance (comparing). These mechanisms are played down in many calls for entries in favor of externalizing intentions that view exemplary projects as way of informing non-architects (read “potential clients”) about architecture and its usefulness and value. The latter discussion often appears under the misleading and arrogant-sounding rubric of “educating the public.”

*          Emphasizing “sharing” and “comparing” for other architects requires careful structuring of the selection process, the means of recognition, and the dissemination of results.

The Dilemma of the Entrant Entrants may be largely unaware of the specific intentions of the awards program, the meaning of terms like “design excellence,” the operations of the jury, and the procedural implications of the very large number of entries that the jury must review. Jurors complain that many submitters do not adequately describe the particular distinctions of their projects and the process that produced them, probably because of uncertainty as to which kinds of information are most useful to the jury.

*          In order to shift emphasis to “sharing” and “comparing,” entrants need to assume a larger responsibility for directing the jury’s attention to the distinguishing characteristics of their approach to the projects submitted, thus giving greater specificity to the jury’s evaluation. Building types are arbitrary and inadequate as a way of directing the jury’s consideration.

*          Projects do not need to be innovative to be good. Design resolution can be distinguished from design advancement. Either of these categories can emphasize specific review criteria such as technical, societal, environmental, historic preservation achievements, or others.

Jury Operations Once empanelled, juries tend to reconstruct themselves. In the absence of clearly stated objectives, jurors may feel the need to debate the intentions of the awards program in order to establish a value structure to guide their deliberations. If no continuity exists between successive juries, the same issues may result in the same controversies year after year—for example the arguments pro and con about the equivalence of historic preservation to the design of new buildings. While not insignificant, these discussions reduce already limited time available for a thorough review of the entries.

*          Jury Guidelines should include recommendations as to juror commitment, thoroughness of project reviews by each juror, rigor, criteria for consideration, the role of the chair, and the selection of materials for recognition/dissemination.

Recognition and Dissemination Recognition of award winning work is usually inadequate to fulfill the intentions of the program, and overblown promotional ceremonies may devalue the awards.

*          In addition to announcement/publication of winners, an awards symposium involving winners, jurors, and invited commentators should critically review the range of winners and the issues the program raises.

*          A record publication devoted to the awards program and its results (like this issue of arcCA) should follow.

__________ Photo by Marc Phu. __________]]>

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