In the simple, converted industrial space looking out at the Seattle skyline that acts as conference room at Olson Kundig Architects, I paused for a moment before the jurors arrived. Everything was in place: thirty-four projects from my Maine colleagues, sitting handsomely against the walls, representing the excellence and diversity that we seem to consistently produce, even in periods of extreme economic challenge. I felt honored to bring this work to another part of the country, proud to show four very distinguished jurors the best of Maine.
Then it began: the jurors filtered in, introduced themselves, got coffee, and immediately set to work, getting to know the work in front of them. The first forty-five minutes were silent, as each juror studied each project and read the descriptions. It gave me time to reflect on what we’ve accomplished in this year’s Design Awards Program:
First, we imbedded sustainability in all aspects of the Program. We requested sustainability metrics for each project, nudging all architects to consider the positive or negative effect their buildings have on the environment, and showed them where they can find the tools for simple and useful analysis. By the results, it’s clear that our architectural community is making a significant commitment to sustainability in their work, although we have a way to go. We structured our Program meetings to reduce driving requirements for committee members. We brought the boards to the jury, rather than having four jurors come to Maine from across the country. We committed to a completely online catalog for the Program.
Second, in a year where almost everyone’s pocketbook feels a bit light, we found a diverse group of sponsors who provide professional support services and products that enable our architectural community to flourish. We solicited small and large sponsorships, and received an unprecedented level of commitment in money and in-kind services that made the Design Awards Program a success.
Ah, the jurors are stirring from their silence, and the discussion has begun: In a room full of “very good”, what stands out? Each juror brings their expertise to the table, grappling with the projects from their own perspective, but still, the classic, uniting language of architectural criticism starts to structure the conversation: What does it mean to be an architect in Maine? Which projects have the clearest concept and most successful execution? What is the building’s response to its site? A harmonious group, with great respect for each other, begins the tough work of selecting the best of the best.
Many projects were quickly eliminated, not because they were unsuccessful, but because of a short list of ten that were such standouts that they quickly dominated the conversation. The jurors talked about each one fluidly and at length. This was a no-nonsense jury, and even on the projects they admired, they tended to focus on and discuss their unsuccessful aspects. Clarity, reduction, simplicity, a strong concept, good graphics: as always, these principles are what influenced them. And, as important as the project descriptions were in providing a secondary level of information, the projects needed to speak for themselves visually to garner the attention of the jurors in the first place.
In the end, without deliberate intent, they chose a variety of projects for awards: residential, institutional, and office typologies; new and renovated buildings; small and large firms. Of the top three awards given, “House on Casco Bay” had an appeal for this jury because they saw it as both responsive to its cultural context and yet thoroughly of its time and exquisitely detailed. “Foster Student Innovation Center” was recognized for its simple, well-resolved formal expression and “Weir Residence” for refined proportions, dramatic yet understated roof form, and uncompromisingly clear plan.
And so the cycle begins again. What foundations just in the ground, what projects half-way through working drawings, will we be celebrating in 2012? Stay tuned. . . .