Experiencing Architecture

A Seattle awards program challenges the profession to rethink its values.

Nader Tehrani is shooting hoops. Later, he and Patricia Patkau play Ping-Pong. Along with David Baker, the architects (from Boston, Vancouver, and San Francisco, respectively) have come to judge the AIA Seattle 2008 Honor Awards for Washington Architecture. I’m here from New York to moderate. We’re at the EX3 Ron Sandwith Teen Center (designed, we learned later, by Weinstein AU). The morning sun sends a milky light from the skylights and shines through the generous windows. This tough concrete envelope feels like a friendly place where neighborhood youngsters can gather to blow off some healthy steam. Inside as well as outside, the humble building says that someone cares, that the community values its children, and that everyone has an equal chance to succeed.

It’s the weekend before Election Day. Clouds gather, some rain falls (always, respectfully, when we’re indoors), and the Seattle neighborhoods are ablaze with autumn colors. We have time to visit nine of the 24 projects that made it this far—culled by the jury from some 180 entries, a record number. The work is strong, confident, competent, but rather safe. The jurors lament the lack of “conceptual ambition” but concede that the professional and technical skills of their Seattle peers are solid.

The organizers have pushed their fellow architects to show evidence that they’ve learned from such initiatives as the 2030 Challenge and 10 Principles for Livable Communities. Environmentalism and ethics are at the heart of 21st-century architecture, reflected in this year’s theme: Perform/Transform. In evidence are great performances as well as poet­ic and social transformation, with EX3 hitting both marks. The jury’s favorite projects include civic buildings, mixed-use urban projects, multiunit infill housing, and (grudgingly) a big private suburban home. Among these are an office building designed to function without artificial lighting ­during work hours, prompting one juror to praise its “forward-thinking relationship to energy use”; a landmark renovation that inserts an elegant, spatially sophisticated, modern living space into an old gym, thus saving the existing building’s embodied energy as well as preserving a lovely old school that tells a neighborhood’s story; and a luminous branch library that shows civic pride and respect for its users. In all, 14 projects are recognized (www.aiaseattle.org/node/2069).

The most revealing moments of the weekend come during site visits, when some projects revealed their fatal flaws—siting, massing, spatial organi­zation, and detailing—which can’t be detected in the beautiful pictures, thus proving the obvious: experiencing architecture firsthand is key to understanding it and placing it in its proper social, environmental, and cultural significance. Thank you, Seattle, for pointing this out to us.

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