Each year during the Portland Architecture + Design Festival in October, the night before the Design Awards ceremony features an evening with the jury in which they discuss not only their own work, but the trio's collective observations about Portland and the design being generated here.
So was the case two weeks ago with the jury for the 2010 AIA Portland Design Awards: Reed Kroloff of the Cranbrook Academy of Art and Museum in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan (and previously the editor of Architecture magazine), John Peterson of Peterson Architects and Public Architecture in San Francisco, and Joan Soranno of HGA Architects and Engineers in Minneapolis.
"How pleased we were with the work we saw," said Kroloff, who also headed the Portland Aerial Tram design competition here in 2003. "We saw almost 80 projects. Usually as a jury you put a whole mess on the table and 90 percent of them fall on the floor on Day One and then you get together on Day Two and argue a lot about five or six projects. That wasn’t how it worked here at all. We looked at those 80 projects and we came back on Day Two and there were still 30 or 35 of them on the table. Which says a lot about the quality of the work. We weren’t keeping them on the table because we’re sympathetic to people in Portland, because of all the rain. It really wasn’t that at all. I live in Detroit. So screw your rain!"
"But not all of the conversation was happy talk," Peterson added. "There were a number of projects that we spent a lot of time really arguing over whether they should be moved forward."
The jury also commended the budget conscious economy in the collective submittals. "There were quite a few projects that were of the magnitude of $40 a square foot, or $80 a square foot," Soranno said. "It is really really tough to do a project of good design.I think with this economy, where clients don’t have a lot of money to spend sometimes, it was hopeful for us to see these examples and realized you don't need $500 or $600 a square foot to do something really wonderful."
A particular trend in this year's award submittals was the high number of houses. Usually architects design only the smallest minority of single-family homes in America, said to be less than 10 percent. And one would expect during recession the amount of house commissions to go down. But perhaps during tough economic times, more architecture firms are motivated to reduce fees and make residential design more attainable.
Each year during this event the jury faces the challenge of talking about particular projects without divulging any information about which ones actually were going to win awards the following night. But architect Ben Waechter must have felt good about his chances when both of the projects he submitted, the Cape Cod residence and the Z-Haus, became discussion topics. Both wound up winning awards the following night.
"This is just fantastic in our world," Soranno said of Waechter's Cape Cod residence in Portland. "Again, with very very limited budget the design totally transformed this house. Yet one of the things we noted was that the fact that the stoop was left entact so there was this kind of remnant of this lost house. The composition is really nice."
"Often what we’re paying attention to in these houses is how they dealt with modest budgets but still did something that was strikingly architectural," Peterson said. "In this case, where they scraped the pitched roof off and built the box on top of it, you had such a dramatic shift in the character that it became a conversation about architecture for anybody that walked by. And whether it’s a positive conversation or a negative one, it’s still a conversation. For all of us, that’s a critical factor."
Adaptive re-use was another theme the jury noted. "Over the last 60 years it’s moved from zero percent of the building industry just after World War II to close to a third of architectural practice today," Peterson said. But in this case, the jury was complimentary about two projects that did not win awards the next night: Hennebery Eddy's conversion of a former Tri-Met bus shelter into a coffee bar, and BOORA's renovation of an old Pearl District warehouse into studios and performance space for BodyVox dance company.
"This project to readapt them as yet another place to ingest coffee was met by the jury with a very positive response," Kroloff said of the shelter conversion. "Not everything about it. There was a significant part of the detailing we thought could have been better considered, but there were parts of it that we all liked."
Of BodyVox, Peterson said, "We appreciated the reserve here. This is a nationally registered building, but the delicate hand…Sometimes cleaning up the interior is one of the most important things you can do as a designer, so we were glad to see this building was handled so gracefully."
The trio also had fun talking about Skylab Architecture's renovation of a Brooklyn building into the headquarters for the Flavor Paper wallpaper company. "This is quite a complex mixed use project. We’ve got a manufacturer who is also a retailer who is also a residential tenant. But have you guys seen pictures of this? Total sex pad. This is an Austin Powers experience."
"And there’s a couple of things to remember on that," Kroloff added. "One, the jury sees it for about that long [snapping his finger], so there’s got to be a way for the jury to ingest the critical issues of that project quickly, and in a way that is intriguing. The second thing is that, although a jury will try and read the commentary, you don’t want it to be some Dostoyevsky experience. At the same time, you’ve got to be succinct and compelling. Try and think of this as a short story. And be careful what you choose. Certain pictures don’t really tell you anything." He then showed onscreen a picture of the corner of a building from one submittal. What does it tell me about the building? Yeah, it’s CORE-TEN [weathered steel], but what do you see there? If you’ve only got eight pictures to show, why that?
"We’re all familiar as architects with putting together awards submittals," Soranno continued. "Especially as you get older and you’re on more juries, you start to get wise to how you put together an awards package. You see some submittals that are all details and you don’t see the overall. Or when you see the overall it’s a twilight shot and it’s so dark that you can’t see all of the exterior. As a juror, you start to say, 'What does the whole look like? Is there something the designers don’t like that they’re nt showing?' It’s making sure that the package at some level is addressing the whole."
Kroloff was especially prickly about night and dusk photography, which may tick off some photographers. But his point was a practical one, not an an artistic one. "A lot of submittals rely on twilight shots or night shots. At the magazine we called those 'cheaters' because you’re relying on an optical effect of light to try and convey a certain type of message of warmth and receptability, not the character of the building. Because generally if a building is in twlight or the dark, you’re not seeing the building. And if the building is being professionally photographed anyway, they’re lighting the building artificially anyway to hype up the lit effect. You never actually see it that way in reality. When I was at Architecture magazine, we never published a single night shot ever. Because they just don’t tell the truth. And so when you choose pictures for a jury, you want to make sure that you’re telling the truth about the building in some fashion. If it’s critical for it to be seen at sunset or at night, it better be because there’s an important lighting experiment or endeavor going on in that project. So be careful about how you choose your limited number of pictures."