Beyond the Beauty Shot

Awards based on pretty pictures alone do a disservice to everyone.

When Rosalyn Cama, a Connecticut-based interior designer, saw photographs of Yale’s new Kroon Hall, she admired the gracious, woodsy, sunlit reading room and praised its serene ambience. Cama—a judge in this year’s IIDA/Metropolis Smart Environments competition—was impressed by the photos as well as by the detailed descriptions of the building’s sustainability and human-well-being program. She was looking forward to experiencing the interior firsthand.

Weeks later she toured the building. It was on the first floor—an image of which was not included in the Kroon entry packet—that Cama had some second thoughts. She found the arrival sequence “messy,” with its pinched hallway and heavy stairwell. “My expectations were high,” she explained to our writer. “I have to say, it is disappointing.” Her reaction points up the problems of judging design, especially interior design—with its unique spatial relationships, program-driven adjacencies, and play of scales, colors, textures, materials, light, and air—from carefully edited pictures usually assembled by the firm’s marketing department.

We all know that rooms and buildings can only be fairly judged when they are experienced. But it’s largely the beautiful pictures that make winning projects. While some awards, like SMART and the AIA’s COTE Top 10, ask for detailed descriptions that reveal each project’s complexities, many award-winning interiors gain recognition solely based on gorgeous photos. This is a hopelessly outdated approach at a time when designers are struggling with environmental, social, and materials choices to make our rooms healthy and safe as well as to reduce our carbon footprints. There are some dramatic exceptions to this superficial approach: jurors travel to see the work of Pritzker Architecture Prize candidates and the top Aga Khan Awards entrants, and members of the Seattle AIA take jurors on site visits of their choices. Unfortunately, this experiential model remains the exception. But it doesn’t need to be. What if our SMART jury chose the top projects based on the detailed entry forms, floor plans, and beauty shots? And then a second-tier jury—IIDA members within visiting distance of each project—went on field trips and discussed their experiences with the first jurors, who could make more informed decisions?

With a nationwide network of qualified IIDA members (or AIA or ASID members), this local phase of the judging would be fairly easy to realize. Yes, it would involve more work for the organizers as well as the jurors, but what a payoff! Imagine if design excellence meant a well-functioning, beautifully realized project that exemplified the most nuanced understanding of sustainability, both social and environmental. And imagine design fans—not just sophisticated pros like Cama but fledgling interior designers, students, and the growing number of laypeople who appreciate the built environment—visiting places that the profession deems to be its best and learning what best truly means. Design awards as public advocacy for the essential contributions designers make to human well-being and aesthetic pleasure: why not?

Web extra: Watch a video of Szenasy talking about this year’s Smart Environments winners.

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