A Perfect Recipe for Boring Buildings

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, May 16, 2009

The design competition for the National Museum of African American History and Culture ended with selection of a design submitted by one of six competing teams, and the winner probably surprised many. It wasn't the one favored by many architects -- including me -- or by others who have spoken to me about it.

Yet this should be no surprise. Choosing a design requires judgment calls that reflect personal tastes and shifting preferences. Indeed, a frequently heard maxim sums it up: "Put three architects in a room, and you'll get five opinions."

But how can one reliably evaluate architecture to distinguish between excellent design and mediocre or poor design?

American officialdom tends to avoid this question. Because aesthetic judgments are subjective, laws and regulations governing land use, real estate development and construction sidestep aesthetic issues. After all, lawmakers and lawyers say, how can you legislate, regulate or measure beauty?

Consequently, design standards and evaluation criteria focus on building characteristics that can be assessed objectively: functional performance, structural stability and durability, public health and safety, energy conservation, environmental impact and financial feasibility.

Zoning and building codes do not address architectural style, contextual fit, visual composition or aesthetic creativity. Laws and policies do not talk about building scale, shape and proportion, symmetry and asymmetry, texture and color, or details and ornamentation.

Yet these fundamentally determine the aesthetic quality of architecture, whether a house or a museum.

Only regulations and guidelines governing preservation of historic buildings and neighborhoods explicitly address aesthetic attributes. Even smart-growth initiatives, striving for sustainability, pay little heed to aesthetics.

Not surprisingly, lack of public discourse about design quality has produced urban and suburban environments full of unattractive, unlovable architecture.

Our utilitarian culture has enabled government and the private sector to develop millions of utilitarian structures -- houses, apartments, offices, shopping centers, schools, warehouses, hotels -- that are architecturally banal and sometimes downright ugly.

Civic and cultural buildings can be an exception. Aesthetics are often high on the agenda when institutions undertake design of significant edifices: libraries, museums, theaters, stadiums, corporate headquarters, government ministries, college campus buildings, courthouses, transportation terminals.

For such projects, clients tend to select architects with strong credentials and impressive portfolios demonstrating recognized aesthetic achievement, as shown by awards and publications.

But in our fickle culture, even these kinds of projects are not immune, sooner or later, to harsh judgments. What's initially lovable can become unloved. For example, exposed concrete buildings once were all the rage. Now they are threatened with demolition. Today we embrace glass and sheet metal, but for how long?

We will never know exactly what criteria the African American museum committee used to select the winning design. But its members' criteria, and their tastes, probably differ from yours and mine.

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

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