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Characteristics of Good Design May Reside in the Eye of the Beholder

However, having a signature architect, LEED certification, atriums and automated solar control would be "nice" but not essential, according to the survey. At the bottom of the tally was valet parking, which 35 percent of respondents indicated they didn't want.

The seminar panelists, each in a different way, offered observations and images that substantially confirmed and illustrated the findings of the building association. But panelists also reminded attendees that, notwithstanding the value of aesthetic, functional and technical amenities, building location and leasing costs remain paramount factors that can trump everything else, including either good or poor design. They further noted that project economic outcomes always depend on timing and often unforeseen market and financial conditions.

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In presenting the architect's perspective, I touched on the eye-of-the-beholder question. There is an architectural subculture -- design practitioners, educators, historians, critics -- whose concerns and values differ markedly from those cited in the DCBIA survey or discussed in the seminar.

In this subculture, practical considerations are ultimately subordinate to formal and theoretical considerations -- matters of contextual relationship, massing and scale, façade composition and style, spatial geometry, color and texture, details and ornamentation, and aesthetic innovation -- items not on the DCBIA survey list. Often, the trophy status of a building is measured primarily by how close it comes to being visually "cutting-edge." Architectural design awards based on stunning photographs, favorable reviews by critics and publication in architectural journals also help convey trophy status.

Clearly the agenda and priorities of the real estate industry overlap those of this architectural subculture only to a limited extent.

Fortunately, there are architectural firms in Washington and elsewhere designing commercially motivated projects that, while not cutting-edge, nevertheless succeed aesthetically, functionally, technologically and economically. In fact, although often ignored by the architectural subculture, many commercial projects garner favorable reviews and receive recognition in the form of design awards.

Does good design make a trophy building? No matter how we define design, any building can merit a "trophy" label if it represents outstanding architecture.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.


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