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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Design Award Logic

Architects are struggling with the logic used to justify design awards. One way to make sense out of the detail is to classify the decisions involved. The military continues to face a similar problem, but identifying success is easier. They must reconcile a profusion of required decisions to reach a goal. They begin by identifying decision categories. In WWII for instance, the tactical decisions of General Patton and his army differed from the strategic decisions of Generals Marshall, Eisenhower et al. These in turn differed from the policy recommendations and decisions of Roosevelt and Congress. The decisions of Churchill and Great Britain are beyond compare. They identified the policy decisions of western civilization. The goal became unconditional surrender, but the point is not to recount history. It is to consider the categories of decision involved.

            Ever since Vietnam, the military has pointed out that strategic and tactical decisions are pointless without a realistic goal that defines success when achieved. In Vietnam, we couldn’t even declare victory and leave. The goal became withdrawal from disastrous decisions.

            So what is the hierarchy of architectural decision? In my opinion, it has not been defined and architecture is debating tactics without a leadership language, strategic plan and clarified goal. Some believe that image is the goal and represents a public benefit while others question the emphasis on form, appearance and photography. Unfortunately, “beauty benefits the beholder” has not been a very convincing public argument to sustain the architectural profession in a free market economy.

One writer has reminded us that the discussion thread should be focusing on a search for award criteria that recognize significant accomplishment “…so that the public understands that it (architecture) is more than great photography and aesthetics.”

I agree, so let’s take a closer look at a portion of the note. (I’ve taken liberties with the text by numbering the basics mentioned and underlining parts of two sentences for emphasis.) 


Do the awarded projects answer real questions and respond to real needs that could not be accommodated by other means?

As to other considerations, it would seem that all of the basics apply:

1) Responsiveness to site and context,
2) Cultural responsiveness,
3) Environmental responsiveness: orientation, day lighting, passive and active solar heating and cooling, natural ventilation, water utilization, etc.,
4) Materials and resource use and responsibility,
5) Short and long-term program responsibility.

I could go on, but the key is to define why these awarded projects are worthy of significant recognition. Their worthiness could result from many sources but we need to be clear about them so that the public understands that it is more than great photography and aesthetics. 


I couldn’t agree more with the underlined statements, but items 1-5 represent tactical evaluation. I’m not sure how to categorize the three questions in the first sentence. I’m sure, however, that if architecture rewards any response to these tactical and nebulous questions, it should be a prose award for the best novel.

In my opinion, the fundamental question is:

“Does the architectural submission achieve an objective that is part of the profession’s strategic plan to reach an acknowledged public goal?”

            We are not ready to evaluate answers to this question. What is the goal? What is the strategy? What are the objectives and tactics needed to achieve them? How do we measure success with architectural knowledge that builds on tactical engineering accomplishment? How do we elevate this knowledge to define strategic options that are recognized as a benefit to public policy evaluation and decision?

I believe the future challenge will be to provide shelter for the activities of growing populations within symbiotic geographic limits. If you agree with the challenge, then you may be ready to consider the goals required to respond. One of the first is a vocabulary that can translate the research of collaborating disciplines into a common language capable of defining options and achieving the strategic architectural decisions that emerge.

I’ve discussed the language of intensity and the vocabulary of development capacity evaluation in previous essays, on my blog and in my book so I will simply mention it here. (You can find further information in my profile.) Vocabulary and language simply allow you to speak, however. They don’t explain what to say. This requires collaboration with at least the physical, social, psychological, political and economic sciences; and research will build knowledge that connects this new language to results within a sustainable Built Domain.

Individual recognition is an artistic aspiration within us all. Common benefit is an abstract ideal that is a potential architectural contribution; but it must occur within symbiotic limits, and cannot be debated with the language of fine art. In the meantime, it is inevitable that awards will focus on tactics and appearance, but this leaves the army wandering in a jungle of detail.  

It is admirable that some in the profession want to step beyond photographs and aesthetics. This will involve asking and answering the right questions before success can be measured and acknowledged. The first two questions have been asked: How do we step beyond fine art to produce a greater level of benefit in the public interest, and how do we define success and reward excellence? The first step is to recognize that a new vocabulary and language are required. The second is to recognize that many levels of decision are involved and each is eligible for decoration. (The Medal of Honor, for instance, is a tactical award.) The third is to recognize that the answer will not involve the elimination of fine art. These are my opinions, however; and the AIAKnowledgeNet is a strategic decision that offers a platform for debate that is commendable in its own right.

I believe architectural goals can benefit an entire culture’s sustainable quality of life, but the right questions are not being asked to build the knowledge required. This direction is a policy decision, however. There is no question in my mind that fine art will emphasize the progress made once it is given the opportunity to represent a new level of symbiotic awareness.

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