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By Clair Enlow

December 20, 2000

Design Perspectives: Is design a good risk?

One evening last month, the concert auditorium at Benaroya Hall was nearly filled architects and others who had come to hear about the best design projects of the last few years. They wanted to know whether their own projects would win design awards in the annual Awards for Washington Architecture sponsored by the Seattle chapter of the American Institute of Architects. They also hoped to learn where their best efforts fell on the points of architecture's national and international compass.

The jurors who spoke from sculpted chairs onstage did not disappoint. They came from Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, and after touring the sites, they gave four projects top honors and declared that they represent four directions of design in the Northwest.

The Bellevue Art Museum by Steven Holl gives us "surprises in form," while Bainbridge Island City Hall by Miller/Hull uses the rural vernacular to make a small town public building accessible. The Brain, a film studio by Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen is a "pure form with urban values in a rural setting," while Pine Forest Cabin combines Northwest Modern rigor with traditional wood construction.

Bellevue Art Museum
The new Bellevue Art Museum received a top honor this year from Seattle AIA.

Walter Schacht, who headed the AIA Seattle committee responsible for the awards program, wonders if the words that set these projects on the pedestal of design excellence mean anything outside the auditorium. What is excellence, if it's only about greater status among architects? What's the point of all this if the public -- and even the clients -- don't get it?

The architects who came to Benaroya Hall have invested their critical and creative talents in their projects. But clients invest their hopes, their dreams and their money. Who is the greater risk? And when a project wins an award, does the client feel like a winner, too?

It's hard to ask, and sometimes it's even harder to get an answer.

"I know for a fact we can't go back to a client and say, 'See, your project has been (evaluated) by this jury,'" said Schacht. "If they weren't really on board from the beginning, there's still a disconnect."

As every architect knows, mistakes are made. And as Frank Lloyd Wright said, "Doctors can bury their mistakes. Architects can only plant ivy." But I suspect that even if ivy could climb walls of glass and steel, few architects would come back to mitigate their biggest mistakes.

For a region of entrepreneurs in a nation of high enterprise, we are willing to risk very little on design, publicly or privately.

For their part, clients are risk averse. Even clients who seek out the new and the innovative in other aspects of their businesses or organizations are timid when it comes to decisions about architecture. For a region of entrepreneurs in a nation of high enterprise, we are willing to risk very little on design, publicly or privately.

Seattle's best claim to architectural greatness has been the heroic protection of scarce historic buildings and districts. Ambitious design projects with a public dimension, built with tax dollars, are likely to fall victim to the wrenching "Seattle process." Architects rush into a vacuum where politicians have fled, unable to assume the risk of design leadership.

As in any prudent investment, the risks and possible rewards of architecture must be understood in order for the investment to be a good one. Like the costs of environmental damage, the benefits of excellent architecture can be described, but they are very hard to quantify or anticipate. Yet the profits or losses of design decisions compound far into the future.

Deborah Jacobs, Seattle City Librarian, understands. At the annual meeting of the Washington Council of the American Institute of Architects last month, she spoke of the raised stakes and the possible rewards of architecture. For her, architecture is a part of redefining the library as an institution. The downtown library, now in the design development stage, was honored in the AIA Seattle awards program as an unbuilt project.

Together with the city of Seattle and architects OMA (led by Rem Koolhaas) and LMN, Jacobs' goal is a new downtown library that works for the electronic age -- for an expanding collection of real books as well as an almost infinite amount of information available electronically. But from the outset of the project, the design stakes have been even higher. The new library is to be a symbol of civic pride. According to the project team, it will also be a real, functioning "living room" for the city.

Without leadership like Jacobs', the client simply can't take the risks involved in achieving great architecture. And neither can the architect.

Bellevue Art Museum, one of the completed projects recognized with a top honor at this year's awards event, is another successful case in point. Director Diane Douglas initiated the project with a sense of changing roles for the museum and a vision of its place in growing Bellevue. Architect Steven Holl supplied a sculpted form to house the new, cyber-friendly art museum, a radical departure from the standards of suburban development surrounding it. If Holl's last project in Seattle -- Seattle University's Chapel of St. Ignatius -- serves as an example, BAM will be an instant architectural landmark for the region. Holl is teamed with Sclater Partners for BAM.

Each of these projects began as the dream and vision of an energetic and committed leader, with a good circle of support and a great sense of timing. Each articulated her vision all through the design process, molding and revising it along with the design of the building. The architects internalized and translated those dreams, visions and convictions into three-dimensional reality. And when the projects got recognized with design awards, no one had to ask if the client was as pleased with the project as the jury.

To be fair, dreams and visions grow well in cultural institutions and facilities with an educational mission. That's why Schacht, founder of Schacht Aslani Architects, prefers this project type. When he was a principal with Olson/Sundberg, he worked on BAM in the planning and programming stage.

Over time, it is possible that these projects will begin to redefine the city, as well as the building type. They may reflect our place in history in a way never before understood, never revealed until now. That would make them very good risks, indeed.

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