Munro:Three times a juror, and a deepening appreciation for architecture

The Fresno BeeFebruary 8, 2014 

After three times as a juror, can I now call myself an honorary architect?

Not quite. But the joke certainly went around last weekend at the 2014 Design Awards presented by the San Joaquin chapter of the American Institute of Architects. The evening turned out to be dominated by Arthur Dyson, one of Fresno's best-known architects, whose firm of Dyson Siegrist Janzen received an award of excellence for University High School on the Fresno State campus.

The awards are presented every two years, and I've been on the jury as a designated "nonarchitect" for the last three competitions. Along the way I've sifted through several hundred entries competing for honors — most of them projects built in the Valley, and a few built in other states but designed locally.

The judging is done sitting in a room for a day looking at slides of entries. The other jurors are prominent out-of-the-area architects, brought in to offer fresh eyes (and, within the privacy of the deliberations, occasional sharp tongues) when evaluating the nominated buildings. (This year, for the first time, another nonarchitect joined me on a jury: local photographer Tim Fleming, who offered expertise on architectural photography, a new award category.)

What have I learned in these sessions? Architects are opinionated. Man, are they opinionated. Zipping through floor plans, elevations and renderings at lightning speed, my fellow eagle-eyed jurors could zero in on details I might never have noticed — the height of a ceiling, the color choices, the relationship of a structure to the topography of a site.

But that's OK. I've discovered over the years that I'm opinionated about architecture, too. And not just because I'm so used to critiquing other forms of art such as theater, music and art. I truly believe that most folks are armchair architecture critics. We might not put that criticism into formal terms or know how to use all the jargon. But I know when I am drawn to a building — and when one leaves me cold.

These strong opinions are subjective, of course. Nothing illustrates that better than Dyson's University High School project, a swooping, outspoken structure whose metal skin makes it look like it's floating. When I sat on the awards jury in 2012, the majority of jurors voted not to give the building any award at all.

This time, the jury of seven gave the building the AIA's design award of excellence, the highest honor. (If a building doesn't win an award, rules allow it to be resubmitted for an award at a later competition within a certain number of years.)

I was the only person to sit on both juries, and I won't reveal the confidential deliberations regarding University High. What can I say? Different jurors, different opinions. Let's just say two years can make a big difference.

But I'm glad that this high-profile structure — an emphatic and elegant statement in a big-box-store world — gets this kind of recognition.

Scott Griffith, of the firm HMC, received a design award of merit for Pioneer School in the Delano Union School District. (It's a warmly scaled, deftly executed project that seems truly inviting for students.) And Warren Douglas Thompson, of T Squared Architects, received a design award of merit for the Iron Bird Lofts in downtown Fresno, a strong urban project.

But overall, it was Dyson's big night. The Selma Performing Arts Center, whipped together with a shoestring budget and featuring two large, diamond-like-shaped geoforms in front, received an award of merit for the Dyson Siegrist Janzen firm, with Dyson listed as design architect. (The building has invigorated the city's downtown.) Another Dyson project, a meticulous restoration of an original Frank Lloyd Wright home in Los Banos, received an award of honor in the craftsmanship category.

The jury gave three awards for architectural photography: two for homes designed by Dyson in Florida and Utah, and one for University High.

The winners are just a small part of what stays with me after serving on the AIA juries, however. For me, it's a chance to think, talk and (sometimes) argue about architecture — a profession that has a profound impact on our daily lives.

Architects these days have to navigate such a complicated world. They deal with demanding clients, myriad laws, strict energy requirements, strapped budgets. And then there's the cookie-cutter mindset of corporate America: use one of a couple of templates to "design" what seems like every new retail store, hotel, office building and housing development in America.

But buildings can still make an artistic statement. After three times as a juror, I'm no architect, not even an honorary one. But my appreciation for a well-designed building continues to grow.


The columnist can be reached at (559) 441-6373, and @donaldbeearts on Twitter.

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