Monday, November 23, 2009

A+DEN Conference: The Objectivity of Good Design

One of the themes that permeated the conference was the challenge of establishing a culture of understanding of good design.

One major roadblock, getting everyone to agree on what good design is. During Peter Murray's presentation, he mentioned Prince Charles' affinity for Georgian architecture and the now famous, or infamous, sacking of Richard Rogers' modern design for the Chelsea Barracks for a Georgian alternative. Mr. Murray is the Chairman of New London Architecture and the Director of the London Festival of Architecture.

Peter Murray on the role of political will in architecture.

I don't blame the Prince of Wales for preferring the Georgian style, everyone is entitled to their opinion. But it's just that sort of political intervention that has been used in cities and neighborhoods to confine them to a certain look. I've heard stories of architects avoiding public housing projects because they mandate things like devoting a minimum percentage of exterior wall to brick. I understand the intent of a requirement like that to protect the end product by disallowing inferior materials. But you also risk stifling the design freedom of the architect.

Richard Rogers' scheme for the Chelsea Barracks. Image courtesy Telegraph Media Group.


Prince Charles' alternative scheme for the Chelsea Barracks. Image courtesy Telegraph Media Group.

Also, while this may work at a small scale, when you get to the scale of an entire city you risk the sort of mundane homogenous neighborhoods one may find in the row housing of Las Vegas or Mexico. Perhaps it would be better to grade architecture, not by style, but by overall aesthetics, quality of materials, the effectiveness of the building to perform the functions for which it is intended, its integration with the urban fabric, its contribution to the social fabric, etc.

One way the City of New York has worked to promote original designs and emerging architects is by setting aside RFP's for smaller projects for smaller or younger firms. As the firms complete these smaller projects they will be considered for larger ones. This has resulted in a very diverse range of designs from emerging architects and has generally been considered a success. I was somewhat familiar with the program but really admire it now thanks to a presentation at the conference by Rosalie Genevro, Executive Director, Architectural League of New York.

Panelists from left: Story Bellows, Director, Mayors' Institute on City Design; Maurice Cox, Director of Design, National Endowment for the Arts; Victoria Thornton, Founding Director, Open House London; Lynn Osmond, President & CEO, Chicago Architecture Foundation. Photo by Anne Evans.

Maurice Cox, Director of Design, National Endowment for the Arts, even broached the subject at a panel discussion. He referenced a lecture by Shaun Donovan, Secretary U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, at Harvard's GSD. In it, Mr. Donovan never used the word design. Instead, his lecture was peppered throughout with the word space-making. I assume this is an effort to avoid alienating a segment of society who sees architecture and design as, rightfully so, elitist.

One of the things I walked away with from the conference is a feeling of admiration from a number of attendees. Few cities have a culture with such an understanding of architecture and design as Chicago. This gives us a bit of a head start over other cities that have to start from scratch, so to speak.

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