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Sam Hall Kaplan

A Competition That Gets the Drift

February 07, 1988|Sam Hall Kaplan

What makes the annual awards program of Progressive Architecture (PA) magazine so engaging is that more than any other design contest it tends to reflect the drift of profession's pretensions.

The awards in the categories of architectural design, urban design and planning, and applied research are for projects not yet, but soon-to-be, constructed. As such, they are suppose to be the cutting edge hinting of the future; in a word, progressive.

This is a noble cause in a profession that in shaping structures in which we live and work, in effect, shapes our future. Unfortunately, most designs too often are not responses to current or projected needs, but rather mimic what has been done and praised in the past, or what is au courant.

However, despite such problems in the past as misrepresented submissions, ripped-off design, the blurring of categories and predisposed and doctrinaire jurors, the PA awards program has persevered to become the most interesting in the profession. The awards do present a history of sorts.

In a time line printed in the magazine's current issue covering the program's 35 years we can see Modernism being heralded, then picked apart and discarded, the rise of Post Modernism, of a new eclecticism and the concept of urban design and the wavering recognition of a host of social, contextual, environmental and preservation issues.

It is a fascinating glimpse of shifting styles, designs and prejudices, illustrated by a montage of photographs of select award winners, and articulated by capsulated jury comments. For a profession rooted in stone and building for the ages, architecture certainly appears trendy.

How these trends change--hopefully for the better--is illustrated in the top PA award this year in the category of urban design and planning that went to Pereira Associates of Los Angeles for the redesign of "Main Street" on the campus of UC Irvine. There were 99 submissions in the category.

The plan calls for a frothy mix of academic facilities and community and student services focused on an arcaded street that imaginatively knits the sprawling, suburban campus together and encourages pedestrian use. "It takes a self-destructive campus plan and reverses it," declared a juror.

As orchestrated by architect William Fain and inspired by UC Irvine's David Neuman, the plan is indeed a welcomed, warm departure from the current cold, rational Modernist mold of the campus.

That plan, it is interesting to note, was developed about 25 years ago by the same design firm, Pereira, but obviously under different direction and in response to different circumstances. At the time, it, too, was heralded.

The top PA award of 790 submissions in the category of architectural design this year went to an art center in New Delhi, India. Jurors described the five interwoven buildings marked by Hindu, Mogul and Classical design elements as "poetic," "expressive," "contextual" and "powerful."

The center that is being developed as a memorial to Indira Gandhi was designed by Ralph Lerner of Princeton, N.J. The design appeared to me to be singular, and not reflective of any particular trend. It is the type of pleasant surprise a jury loves.

Among the 12 other winners in the architecture category were three from Southern California: Thom Mayne and Michael Rotundi of the Santa Monica-based firm Morphosis; and out of San Diego, Richard Friedson and Jennifer Luce of the firm of Visions, and Tom Grondona.

Mayne and Rotundi garnered a citation for a proposed remodel of a two-family residence in Santa Monica, the design of which, according to the architects, "explores the ground between found objects (a contemporary archeology) and building."

A juror commented that the structure was "clearly about confrontation and the whole issue of architecture forcing you to evaluate visual and idea images." It is the exploration of such ideas that makes Morphosis a perennial favorite in the annual PA awards.

A citation went to Visions for a modest proposed addition to a senior citizens' center in Marina Vista. Distinguishing the plans and photographs of the model displayed in the magazine is a sensitivity to the site, the different activities to be conducted there, and the user. The total holds the promise of being functional and friendly.

More assertive and sculptural is the proposed dental office in San Diego for which architect Grondona won a citation. It features a waiting room at the base of a cylindrical tower where a periscope of sorts reflects images of the surrounding neighborhood. The idea is that the contraption will divert the patient while waiting to see the dentist.

In the category of applied research out of 36 submissions there were three awards and two citations. One of the citations went to a USC School of Architecture team for a voluminous study of alternative sites and facilities to serve an expanded Los Angeles Children's Museum.

The team headed by associate professor Victor Regnier was praised not for anything innovative, but, according to the jury, taking the best techniques of such studies--including questionnaires and site evaluations--and using them very well.

According to the rules of the contest, the winning projects are just recipes for designs. Their true test awaits construction. That is what makes architecture, and the PA awards, so exciting, and sometimes so disappointing.

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