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.