Donald Munro

Inside the architecture jury room: Fresno design matters

The Edison High School Academic Building, by Darden Architects, Inc., received an award of excellence at the design awards for the San Joaquin chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
The Edison High School Academic Building, by Darden Architects, Inc., received an award of excellence at the design awards for the San Joaquin chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Special to The Bee

What happens in the architecture design awards jurors’ room stays in the architecture design awards jurors’ room.

But I can tell you this: Architects are smart, principled, opinionated people. During my six-hour stint on April 15 judging entries for the San Joaquin chapter of the American Institute of Architects design awards, I was often struck by the graceful yet emphatic way we can talk about buildings.

Architecture sticks around for a while, after all, even the schlocky strip malls and cookie-cutter houses. The mediocre stuff might not be with us for as long as the great cathedrals of Europe, of course, but in a fast-and-tumble, throwaway world, even the cheapo buildings we erect offer a sense of permanence.

And for that, we can be thankful for thoughtful architects with high standards.

This was the fourth time for me serving as a juror for the local AIA awards, which are given every two years, and on each occasion it’s been a different kind of experience. That’s mostly because of the makeup of the jury, which has changed each time with the exception of me, the designated “nonarchitect.”

(This year, there were actually two “laymen” on the jury: me and Joe Moore, director of program content at Valley Public Radio.)

The three architects on the jury, all from out of the area, brought a wealth of experience in designing and teaching: Andrew Dunbar of San Francisco, Jana Itzen of Santa Ana and Jason Silva of Sacramento. Together with Joe and I, something clicked among us all. It was clear, after six hours of back-and-forth, that we were on a similar wavelength. We achieved a balance of praise and toughness, of encouragement and disapproval.

I learned a lot.

I’ve been on past juries that were dominated more by academics and theorists. I learned from those panels, too. But in one instance, I can recall that while the criticism was sharp and occasionally cutting, what was missing was the encouragement.

When you’re famous enough as an architect, you don’t have to worry as much about budget or the whims of your client. Most architects, though, have to deal with such real-world issues every day. To be able to navigate turbulent design waters and still be able to turn out a creative and substantial design is a real accomplishment. Fresno has a lot of developers who don’t care much about meaningful architecture. And architects have to eat. Creating quality work in such an environment takes a special talent.

We gave out 15 awards, each one ranked at a level of merit (the lowest tier), honor or excellence (the highest).

Three firms dominated: Darden Architects, Inc.; Arthur Dyson’s two affiliated firms, Arthur Dyson Architects and Dyson Siegrist Janzen Architects, Inc.; and Paul Halajian Architects.

They ranged from the inspiring Edison High School Academic Building to the graceful Lapp Residence, both examples of designs keenly aware of human scale and the surrounding environment. One of my favorite categories, for adaptive reuse, had an award go to the newly opened Betty Rodriguez Regional Library, which transformed a vacated grocery store into a bright, spiffy space.

After the evening awards ceremony, which was held in the historic (and beautifully restored) Fresno City College Old Administration Building Auditorium, itself a prime example of architecture, the jurors headed out for a night on the town.

This in itself was a first for me in terms of being a juror. In the past, the out-of-town jurors expressed no desire to see anything of the city.

Where do you take three visiting architects? The Fulton Mall, of course, the biggest architectural project of the moment. First stop: Peeve’s Public House, which sits in the middle of the construction zone that the mall has become as the city prepares to open it to traffic.

Where others might have looked at the dust and chain-link fences and seen wretchedness, all three architects seemed genuinely fascinated by the process. They pointed out the stately old buildings lining Fulton Street, admiring their intricate facades and dignified demeanors. They listened to Moore (who knows a lot about the mall project) talk about the plans. Like any architect, they were able to look at a rough draft and imagine the finished project.

After beers at Peeve’s, we headed south on the mall toward Tioga-Sequoia Brewing Company. As we started walking, the Grizzlies home-opener game at Chukchansi Park ended, and a rip-roarin’ fireworks show exploded right over us. Crowds of people from the game thronged the street. Color flashed in the sky. Beer trickled through our veins. Our timing couldn’t have been better.

That’s a Fresno feeling to build upon.

AIA San Joaquin 2016 design awards

Design Awards for Adaptive Reuse & Renovations

Award of Honor: Betty Rodriguez Regional Library, Paul Halajian Architects

Design Awards for Civic Design

Award of Merit: College Community Church Mennonite Brethren, Paul Halajian Architects

Design Awards for Educational Design

Award of Merit: Phillip J. Patino School of Entrepreneurship, Darden Architects, Inc.

Award of Honor: Rutherford B. Gaston Sr. Middle School, Darden Architects, Inc.

Award of Excellence: Edison High School Academic Building, Darden Architects, Inc.

Design Awards for Preservation & Historic Building

Award of Excellence: Fawcett House, Arthur Dyson Architects

Design Awards for Residential, Housing & Shelter

Award of Merit: Lapp Residence, Arthur Dyson Architects

Award of Merit: Hilton Residence, Arthur Dyson Architects

Awards for Craftsmanship

Award of Honor: Garden Trellis and Canopy, Darden Architects, Inc.

Award of Excellence: Fawcett House Entry Gate, Darden Architects, Inc.

Awards for Interiors

Award of Merit: Architectural Office, Dyson Siegrist Janzen Architects, Inc.

Award of Merit: Huron Library Renovations, Dyson Siegrist Janzen Architects, Inc.

Design Awards for Lived Well

Lived Well Award: Chaffee Zoo South American Rainforest, Darden Architects, Inc.

Lived Well Award: Bedwell Residence, Arthur Dyson Architects

Lived Well Award: Baughman Residence, Arthur Dyson Architects