This seems to be my year for serving on architectural design award juries. Scores of local and national award programs are sponsored annually by the American Institute of Architects, building product trade associations -- masonry, aluminum, steel, wood -- and such publications as Progressive Architecture, Builder and The Washingtonian.
One benefit of jury service, reviewing projects of every type, size and quality, is to see what architects and their clients are building and to survey the "state of the art."
As always, the state of the art is uneven, ranging from banal to tried-and-true and occasionally to the cutting edge. Moreover, the process of judgment itself, the method for identifying, analyzing and selecting design award recipients, seems inevitable but far from perfect.
Most design award programs stipulate who is eligible to submit entries, the types of projects that are eligible, the submission format and content, registration fees and deadlines for submission. Usually only recently constructed projects qualify, although a few competitions are limited to unbuilt projects.
Architects, owners, builders or suppliers normally prepare submissions, with architects taking the lead in most cases. Typical documentation includes exterior and interior photographs, slides, drawings and written descriptions. This can be a costly undertaking. With high registration fees, award submissions can be a substantial expense for small firms.The jury, almost always three or more in number, usually makes a first, quick pass through all the submissions. Looking primarily at images and acting on first impressions, jurors separate projects into two groups: those saved for further consideration and those rejected.
Frequently, jurors agree that any project getting at least one "save" vote will not be rejected during the first cut. However, surprisingly large numbers of entries, perhaps half to two-thirds, receive no affirmative votes and don't survive the first round. Jury unanimity about the bottom half seems easy to achieve.
After the first cut is made, each project receives a bit more attention. Photos and drawings are scrutinized more carefully. Written descriptions, probably read superficially if at all, during the first cut are reviewed more thoroughly. Discussion among jurors increases as they try to whittle the pool down to perhaps 15 percent of its original size.
Finally, serious debate and negotiation ensue. How many awards should be given? Where should the line be drawn between As and Bs? Remaining projects invariably fall into two categories: those the jury unanimously, or overwhelmingly, believes deserving of an award, and those about which at least one juror has reservations.
Final deliberations bring most sharply into focus differences in individual jurors' aesthetic preferences. Personal biases, tastes and philosophies begin to emerge. Jurors may position themselves offensively or defensively to keep or cast out a specific project that they strongly like or dislike. Trading may occur, much like politics -- I'll vote for your favorite if you'll vote for mine.
Final choices reflect the collective and personal design values and standards of the jurors. In fact, for a given set of submissions, two juries would undoubtedly come up with two different sets of award choices, although probably with some overlap.
Some juries are generous, expanding the number of awards by citing what might be called B-plus projects. But other juries insist on nothing less than A-plus. They may give only one or two awards or refuse to designate first place or grand prize awards. On rare occasions, juries may decide to give no awards.
The numbers of award programs and projects, coupled with time and budget limitations, generally make this the only practical process for honoring design achievement. But rarely have I come away from a design award jury review without feeling that we may have misjudged in some instances, or that worthy projects were never submitted, perhaps because of expense or lack of awareness of the contest.
The risk of misjudging stems from the inescapable reliance on photography, on assessing a presumably holistic artistic effort on the basis of a few, dramatic, well-composed photographs. If the submitter is astute, only eye-catching, flattering photographs are included, usually without people in them. Thus jurors always wonder if projects look and feel as good as they appear photographically.
Conversely, some projects are presented so poorly, with mediocre or bad photographs and drawings, that the jury signals thumbs down despite hints of design quality. There is always a chance that some rejected projects, properly presented, might have been saved or become award winners.
Another common problem facing juries arises from documentation that leaves important questions unanswered, particularly concerning relationships between buildings and their sites. Rejection occurs because projects are presented as if they were anywhere, or nowhere.
Site plans often show only what exists within a project's property boundary. Without some idea, both from photographs and drawings, about context -- about off-site conditions and surrounding patterns of buildings, spaces and landscape -- juries have difficulty understanding why on-site features -- building location, massing and facade composition, layout of parking, drives, walks, planting -- were made.
Juries may throw out a project simply because its form seems arbitrary and unrooted. Negative comments are heard regularly about projects that could be picked up and put anywhere with equal appropriateness, or lack thereof. Most notable among these are office buildings, many of which seem to come from some catalogue periodically updated with the latest fashion treatments. Only good documentation can demonstrate otherwise.
To be really fair, juries should see and judge projects in the flesh, logistically an almost impossible task. Site visits would be the most foolproof method of evaluation, since architecture is fundamentally experiential and spatial, not two-dimensional. Sometimes, upon visiting a project, jurors discover that it looks much better or much worse than it did in photos.
Many who compete for awards would complain that juries are too fixated on architectural imagery and esthetics alone. Knowing that designing and constructing buildings is a complex process involving hundreds of people and constrained by powerful economic and legal forces, some professionals believe that award juries should consider all aspects of a project's existence rather than just its visual attributes.
They would question, for example, bestowing an award on a beautiful building that busted the budget or functioned poorly. For some architects and owners, just getting a competently designed building built, despite innumerable challenges and obstacles -- schedules, finances, construction budgets, zoning, building regulations -- is in worth an award.
But the purpose of most design award programs is not to recognize competence, but to recognize exceptional design creativity, to single out truly outstanding projects no matter their size and budget. Indeed, design awards should encourage and reinforce excellence, experimentation, risk-taking and innovation, although judgment of aesthetic success always will depend on the eyes of the beholders.
Notwithstanding their flaws, well-managed design award programs serve to elevate architectural standards and aspirations. Otherwise, why bother? Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.