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By Clair Enlow

October 18, 2000

Design Perspectives: Ideas get top billing at Idaho conference

Sun Valley conjures images of guarded compounds and ski slopes studded with Hollywood stars. It has its share of significant residential architecture, but it has never been known as a center of design culture.

AIA Summit 2000, held last month at Sun Valley Resort, put it on the map. The winter recreation spot was an oasis of early autumn green and gold surrounded by bare, gray hills. It was also the setting for an ambitious program of intellectual reflection and exploration -- with high-drawing star power of the architectural variety.

Billed as the first western multiregional and international conference of the American Institute of Architects by its Idaho organizers, the conference drew a crowd of more than 600 and culminated in a multiregional design awards program. At the heart of the event was a three-day series of speaker presentations and panel discussions tackling some of the oldest and most central questions in design theory, all under the carefully chosen theme of the conference: "Exploring the Spirit in Architecture."

AIA Gold Medalist Arthur Erickson of Vancouver, Ontario architect Douglas Cardinal, Montreal theorist and author Indra Kagis McEwen, San Francisco writer and critic Allan Temko, international artist and architect Tao Ho, Mexican architect Victor Legorreta (son and partner of Ricardo Legoretta), celebrated landscape architect Peter Ker Walker, San Francisco architect Allison Williams and Seattle architects Johnpaul Jones and Arne Bystrom were all on hand, along with Architectural Record editor Robert Ivy, panel moderator. Participants packed the house for an evening address by Stanley Saitowitz, designer of the Holocaust Memorial in Boston. Walker provided an overview of his work in a regional awards program.

Out of four of the main conference speakers, three were Canadians. To serve as a focus for their thoughts, speakers and panelists had been assigned subject areas of daunting breadth and scope: Beginnings, Nature, Culture and Analysis.

"I did not want them talking down to laity," said Sun Valley architect Jack Smith, who rallied his professional comrades in Idaho to make design the focus of the conference.

The speakers' responses involved some philosophical questions not easily addressed in a conference setting: What is the basis of the design impulse? How does good design work with nature? How does culture inspire design, and how does design create culture? What is the role of the individual designer in architecture? How is the act of making buildings changing and how is it essentially unchanged over the millennia? Through the panels and presentations, several surprising answers to these questions emerged, along with some familiar ones.

Based on her book "Socrates' Ancestor: An Essay on Architectural Beginnings (MIT Press, 1993)," McEwen probed the linguistic and cultural foundations of Greek civilization to conclude that craft and architecture precede philosophy in the development of the West. Through the spiritual principals of his Native American heritage, Cardinal described a journey of risk, responsibility and environmental sensitivity in the practice of architecture.

"The blank piece of paper is a powerful space," he said. "There is power in living the question, (in) not always being an answering machine." He described his original design of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. as "a spirit mountain, shaped by the forces of nature ... a female building -- nurturing, reaching out to protect."

Tao Ho told stories and showed the products of a 20th century life of design at the crossroads between West and East, "head" and "heart," he said. Early modernist Walter Gropius and designer-philosopher Buckminster Fuller influenced his broad career as an architect, painter and sculptor and led to renewed engagement with his Chinese heritage. He now bases his practice in his Hong Kong office, which is housed in a structure he designed using recycled shipping containers.

Erickson gave his audience a personal tour through world history and his own philosophy of modernism. "Being Canadian, we are more citizens of the world than a nation," said Erickson, "and therefore, detached observers."

He had harsh words for the way contemporary buildings get designed and built. "The developer is a poor substitute for the committed entrepreneur of the last century, for whom the work of architecture represented a chance to celebrate the worth of his enterprise... Having been exposed to the post-modernist disdain for authentic techniques, the developer/builder has become accustomed to low-cost, stage-set methods. Dryvit can simulate anything."

Anger and disappointment in the lives of the speakers occasionally spilled over. Erickson and Tao Ho compared their own memories of a confusing design competition in China. Allan Temko embarked on a rant about political power and the press in San Francisco. And Cardinal took the opportunity to register his bitterness about the manner in which he was dismissed from the Museum of the American Indian project and replaced by another design team.

At various points, guests and audience addressed the tension between regionalism and the global nature of the modern design industry. Food was the favorite metaphor for resolving this tension. Sushi is popular in Mexico, according to Legoretta, but it has avocado and peppers on it. Around the world, people understand the taste that different soils impart to wine and food, said Ho. Indigenous architecture has adapted to widely differing climatic conditions, and should continue to do so, he said. But he cited certain cultural threads that seem universal, just as basic truths that emerge in all cultural and spiritual traditions.

The celebrated guests bemoaned the separation between design and construction activities and compartmentalization in all of the design disciplines.

"Fostered by our university system, structural, mechanical, plumbing, electrical, lighting and acoustics are independent specialists, each in a world of his own, who hardly talk to each other," said Erickson. "In those countries which had many centuries of a craft tradition behind their building methods, the concurrent skills are encouraged, building is seen as a craft, and techniques are highly coordinated throughout these cultures."

Through the presentations and panels, the celebrated guests repeatedly referred to the power of technology and the ways it is transforming the act and the essence of architecture. On the other hand, the word "craft" came to the fore again and again -- for example, McEwen's assertion that Greek philosophy had its origins in the traditions of weaving and boat building as well as architecture. There were observations about the increased emphasis on physical models in the design studio and the significance of life drawing and other forms of traditional education in architecture and design.

At times, the guests acknowledged that technology has a fascinating new relationship with art. Peter Ker Walker spoke of a modern maze he is designing in France. At certain points in the maze, sensors may or may not allow the visitor to proceed based on the clothing colors worn. Frank Gehry's Experience Music Project was cited as an example of the freeing power of technology, with the form sculpted in wood and plastic and then built using drawings entirely generated by design software and materials cut by computer-guided laser.

But true to the spirit of the conference, faith in the pursuit and the power of good design was reaffirmed. Under projected slide images of ancient Greek ships, Chinese ink drawings and their own impressive design achievements, this diverse, international cast of speakers seemed to arrive at the same conclusion: Like technology, the brain may be just another technical tool in an endeavor that belongs to the heart and the hand.

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