Why do we gamble for human architecture?

How do you win a design competition? Stand out, right? Present ideas and illuminate things unique to your proposal, right? Don’t trod the beaten path?
What do most of us think of when we think “architectural competition proposal”? We think of a single building, viewed from about one hundred feet, with a clear sense of massing, materiality, and light. Just look at 95% of the submissions for Guggenheim Helsinki, for example. Whenever we design a building, it would make sense for us to design only a building, right?
Not necessarily. Not when you remember that the deeper reason for building a museum or a theater is to benefit the city at large– it needs to draw people inward, and strengthen the sense of place outward. However, that part is always really hard to design, so architects just dabble in it. Using their usual tools, they suggest the potential ways the building at hand will serve the community. This is where the cognitive break happens. There is no way a single architect can know in advance how a civic building will affect its city, especially not with simply arranging walls or choosing materials or even controlling pedestrian flow. Greater forces are at play here, and there is no shame in admitting that we cannot know it all in advance. Architects should see their schematic designs and competition proposals as mere catalysts for further discussion with the operators of the institution, those who make a civic building the living entity it should be after its construction. I’m talking about curators, donors, superintendents, administrators, performers, artists, security guards… the lot.
In order to approach a building design like this, obviously one has to do more than draw. One has to gather, question, talk, and listen.
H3 took this very approach in a recent competition for the University of Auburn, and sadly it backfired. In short, the university was seeking a design architect to lead the construction of a new Performing Arts Center. Each of the shortlisted firms were to fly to Auburn, set up shop in a private room for 4 days, come up with a proposal, then present it to the board and donors. During those 4 days, members of the public were allowed to drop in and interact with the architects, in what was intended to be a very transparent and engaging competition. This charrette-y approach was the idea of university architect Jim Carroll.
Auburn University master plan.
H3’s team, upon arriving at the university, were on the lookout for opportunities and needs on the school-wide scale. Their proposal focused as much on master planning and event programming as it did on the new PAC itself. To convey these big, long-term ideas, they used a mix of site plans, rendered perspectives, physical models, flow charts, diagrams, and even video interviews.
Wilson Butler, the eventual winners, focused fully on designing a building and drawing the audience in with specific architectural details like a large operable door, wood balconies, and a ceiling with a specific lighting scheme. Their deliverables consisted mainly of smaller-scale 3D models, plans, and hand-drawn perspectives.

H3HC’s proposal looked something like this….:

National University of Singapore. Sasaki Associates.

…while Wilson Butler’s proposal looked something like this:

PGI, University of Illinois. CUH2A Architects.
H3’s proposal stood out among the four submissions, without a doubt. They were the unofficial crowd favorite by a large margin. And yet, they didn’t win. Which personally hits a funny bone– on the one hand, they did absolutely the right thing, by focusing on how the building would improve campus life on many fronts; but on the other, by having a less concrete one building in their proposal, they were making a gamble. How can a proposal that gets at the heart of the matter be the odd one out? Shouldn’t all the proposals have considered the big picture?
My recent post about the conversations we have with our surroundings is about the crux of this very matter: the need to balance large-scale, community-based, long-term planning with more human-scale, short-term phenomena that are relatable to each individual in a community.
Humans are each capable of perceiving patterns, forces, systems, and physical qualities of the world that affect us daily but are hidden in plain sight. Mostly, though, we do not seek them out because we are busy with our personal affairs. Further, even if we did seek them out, we would not know where to look. Visions of these patterns must be coaxed out.
The strength of design lies with revealing and ameliorating the issues that we experience every day but may feel powerless to change. But for the same reason that it pervades everyday life so thoroughly, the methods for illuminating it need to be kind of amorphous. A designer needs to use many different media in order to properly link the issue at hand and the people it affects. This is all to say that sometimes (more often than you might think), taking the default path to a design solution is lazy. That laziness is exactly the same criticism usually leveled at architects.
Coming to the first round-table discussion with a design already set is a dick move– it says to the client “you don’t know what’s good for you. I know what kind of building you need here.” Is that the right way to design? But, if we as architects acknowledge how little we actually know in the grand scheme of things, we might then find peace with our drawings. Our raison d’etre then becomes simply space making, which is a deliciously vague idea, but is still mostly understood and allowed by non-architects. But is space making enough? Isn’t space just the white noise on the radio of everyday life?
I’m beginning to generalize, but the frustration was palpable in the conference room when the partners recapped the ordeal. Fortunately, the takeaway is twofold: 1) that H3 will continue to stick to its guns, and 2) those guns are standard issue that for some reason almost no one else wields.
“Architecture is not about a building. Architecture is about people inhabiting a building.”

Frank Gehry on Artsy

Some of the best websites out there are the ones that provide a seamless, legible overview and archive of works by artists and designers. It’s a step above a plain Google image search, but not as painstaking or as limited as the archives of a modern art museum. The need for these accessible compendium-type sites is even more essential for architecture and design, given its range of scales and media. Last week I learned of one such website that does a commendable job with the work of Frank Gehry. It’s called Artsy. While its focus is in fine art, there is an effort to include designers and architects who have crossed the borderline between buildings and objects, between architecture and sculpture, between floor plans and sketches. It is a great networking site for collectors, galleries, and curious types. They are also working on an ‘art genome,’ which attempts to sort all fine art with specific characteristics. Each work has its own identity based on its unique combination. Users can also follow the site like other social media. For anyone writing about art online, Artsy is a neat source for images.
In addition to a gallery of images, there are also in-house editorials to provide context, current shows where one can go out and see their work, and short bios. The site is also building pages on Henri Labrouste, Louis Sullivan, Zaha Hadid, and others. Check it out.
Thanks to Dmitry for reaching out.