You may notice a theme in our choices for this year's residential architect Leadership Awards. The winners of our Hall of Fame, Top Firm, and Rising Star honors are unafraid of a pitched roof, or a dormer, or crown molding. And to their clients' relief, they take on the challenge of existing context with a light touch instead of a sledgehammer. We at the magazine think their work is beautiful, and so do many members of the mainstream press, but they may have a tough time winning national design awards from architect-led juries. Why? Because most architects are trained to consider work that uses traditional forms derivative. So-called derivative work does not win critical praise and laurels. Or does it?
In my 16 years of serving on design juries and organizing them, I've seen derivative “modern” work trump fresh “traditional” work for award status time and time again. Apparently it's OK to use as inspiration work from zero to 50 years ago but not 150. Wait, let me correct that—you can use a commercial, industrial, or agricultural building from 150 years ago as your palette, but you can't use a residential building in the same way. To move outside the arena of residential architecture for appropriation is a fresh take, but to continue the conversation started by existing houses is unimaginative, uncreative. So, go ahead, design a house that evokes a piece by David Hockney. You'll probably win an award. But design something that outmaneuvers our expectations of Victorian, Tudor, or Shingle precedents —well, you might not want to clear a space on your wall for the plaque.
Houses serve basic functions that are remarkably consistent from occupant to occupant. We all need a place to cook, clean, sleep, entertain, and relax. Within this similar program is the potential for infinite variety. The same is true of any architectural style—whether we saw it newly built last year or on a visit to the ancient ruins of Pompeii—there's always something new to say using a vocabulary we all understand.
Some architects try to dodge the style argument by saying the look of their houses emerges “organically” from site, climate, and program. It's a lovely thought, and I'm sure those components help direct choices in important ways. But it's also a bit of a cop-out. Every architect has an ingrained aesthetic preference that steers the house in a certain stylistic direction, within the length of the clients' leash, of course.
So, isn't it time we abandon the moral judgments and sanction the entire world as acceptable inspiration for creativity and conversation?
Our three award-winning firms are indeed leading the way for other architects, even though they're not designing houses that look like amoebas or shipping containers. How so? They continue to move the bar forward each time they design a house. They bring an intellectual rigor and a broad base of knowledge to their work. They don't design with blinders on—this is OK to use, but this isn't. And they feel a deep sense of responsibility to their clients and the neighbors to build something of enduring value. They love modern work, too, and it informs everything they do, but they choose to apply those lessons with subtlety. As our Hall of Fame winner, Stuart Cohen, FAIA, says, “For me, Corbu was so monumental. How can you pretend it never happened?” His wife and partner, Julie Hacker, AIA, aptly adds, “We could, but it wouldn't be as interesting.”
Comments? E-mail: S. Claire Conroy at firstname.lastname@example.org.