Obsessed with the Small

I attended the Design Awards dinner for AIA Houston recently and was quite impressed with the standards of the awards program, the quality of the jurors and the thoughtful way the program was conducted.  I am a big believer in the peer review process as a means to identify and recognize good work that becomes exemplary in setting new directions for our field.  That is why one element of the program was disturbing to me.

Here in the fourth largest city in the country, there seemed to be an inordinate emphasis on “small” projects.  Nine awards were given for new buildings recently completed.  Five of those were given to single family homes, two were for interiors and one was for a very clever carport and parking lot.  Only one award was given for a building of over 50,000 square feet.  Although there were dozens of substantial sized schools, office buildings, medical facilities, government and university buildings etc. submitted, only one was selected for an award.  Whereas one in six of the houses submitted might have won an award, more like one in sixty of the larger buildings won an award.  Having kept up with dozens of such awards programs over the years, it strikes me that the AIA Houston program is not so unusual.  Why are so few larger buildings chosen as models for the best of architectural design in programs like this?  (I should note that this is certainly not sour grapes on my part since the one large building selected, the General Services Administration Field Office, is the only one submitted in which I had any involvement.)

Maybe one could argue that the really good designers are mostly doing smaller houses and interiors and the designers working on larger buildings are just less skilled and therefore less appropriate to be recipients of awards.  That argument seems seriously flawed given the fact that some of the same designers who win awards for “boutique” projects have much less luck when they submit their larger projects.  It also seems very unlikely that all the best talent in the field has somehow gravitated to these little projects and eschewed participation in projects that might have a broader cultural role.  I think this very common pattern of awards recognition is symptomatic of an obsession with the small in our field that is very problematic.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love doing single family houses and other small projects, and have almost always had one going on at pretty much any point in my career.  They are far less complicated than larger buildings, and there is much more opportunity for control on the part of the architect.  Clients and users are less complex and hydra-headed.  Both fees and construction budgets are generally more flexible and much higher per square foot.  Their smaller size inherently makes it simpler to get your arms around the problem and understand every detail.  Frankly, they are just easier.  I think that is why so many projects in architecture schools are small.  They are manageable, and satisfying results can be achieved by a single student working alone for the limited time-frame of a semester.  Maybe we are trained in school to think this is the premier vehicle for good design–a project that can be boiled down to a simple concept, conceived in a napkin sketch or two, worked through in one head over a few months and presented in a handful of snappy drawings.

Unfortunately, the kinds of buildings our culture needs from us as architects are not that simple.  Children in our cities need schools that will stimulate them and facilitate their education, and these will not be tiny little schoolhouses anymore.  The workforce of our society needs office buildings, production facilities and other work places that will be nurturing, efficient and beautiful places to spend 8+ hours a day–often more hours than we spend in our homes.  Our cities need multi-family housing environments that create sustainable patterns of living while also making well-scaled, neighborly places for everyday life.  We need healthcare environments where both medical staff and patients feel supported and where design contributes to medical advances and individual patient healing.  All of these needs require large, complex buildings with a diverse range of users, complicated processes of design and construction and a wide array of architectural skills.

Shouldn’t we be recognizing, awarding and learning from the best of the kinds of buildings our society desperately needs us to design well?  Shouldn’t well designed large buildings–like schools, office buildings, laboratories, retail centers, airports, convention centers, university buildings, public buildings etc.–be purposefully represented in our awards programs?  In the 25+ design awards juries I have served on I have made it a point to be an advocate for the practice of architecture that serves large numbers of everyday people in their daily lives.  I am certainly proud to recognize the exquisite small project that is full of control and finesse.  But these projects should stand, in design awards programs, alongside a good complement of projects that make a substantial contribution to solving the larger architectural problems of our society.

Thinking about Contemporary Practices, Cultural Identity, Life as an Architect, Texas Architecture
Posted April 12, 2010

  • happydemocrat

    I enjoyed this article. I served as a committee member on several AIA awards programs in Seattle during the 90s. Not only were small houses rewarded, jurors were enticed by the fantastic settings… simple houses set in mountain ringed meadows got a lot of consideration– hospitals, not so much. As someone who worked on K-12 schools or hospital remodels, there wasn't much hope for projects my team did.

    I did have an interesting conversation this week, with a Dell recruiter, who said Dell is done with office space. No more cubes. New hires would only get office space if someone gave up a cubicle, otherwise they would be a home office employee. That has huge ramifications for well designed houses… with offices.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Chris-Emens/2022870 Chris Emens

    Thank you for the article Larry. In my (short) career to this point, my favorite job was on the design side in an office that carried out a wide array of public/institutional projects. I really enjoyed it as even though the budgets for the projects may not have been great, they really poured the most into every project they could. It seems that in awards scenarios it would be helpful to view projects in categories to avoid such apples to oranges comparisons.

    On what “happydemocrat” said. I've seen similar trends where IBM offices are empty and people are working almost exclusively from home. Where it gets interesting is that these companies are starting to use digital worlds like “Second Life” to conduct their daily meetings. While it seems like fun at first I wonder about the long term affects on quality of life (or business). It would be interesting to compare these lifestyles to those of a traditional office setting as well as to a “well designed” office setting.

  • Lwspeck

    I worry about home offices too. Certainly there is a level of collegiality that gets compromised. Having worked in a university community (where many people have always worked at home) as well as a professional community, I can certainly see the difference between co-workers who come to their offices every and have casual encounters and conversations with colleagues and those who are more isolated at home. Personally, I depend very heavily on the informal interactions I have every day with all of the various people in my work environments for stimulation and continued growth. I do not see how that could happen at home.

  • http://studioa2design.wordpress.com/ Edward Alshut

    Your point of small projects compared to large social infrastructure can be compared to your recent travels to China where since 1949, mainland China has been administered by the People’s Republic of China—a one-party state under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. Centralized power can achieve visionary goals, as evident in Paris. In America, a capitalistic democracy rarely are great social goals set or achievements in the public realm realized, exceptions are rare moments of political inspiration such as Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, commonly called the Interstate Highway System or Interstate Freeway System in the 40s and 50s, or President Kennedy’s challenge to the nation resulting in NASA and the country taking “…one giant leap for mankind.”
    Shawn and I lived in Houston for 2 year after graduation from UT, my working for SOM doing office towers for private speculation not social infrastructure. Simply a service reflecting our national priorities.
    The last two years 2009-2010 will have profound changes on our world, adapting, evolving to change or face extinction. Not entirely a bad thing, just human nature taking its course. We are in the midst of an exciting digital revolution that makes the office building 5′ grid obsolete. In change there is opportunity.
    A recent cover of Architectural Record posed a question to the profession “What’s next?”