Book Review: Judging Architectural Value

Judging Architectural Value edited by William S. Saunders

This fourth issue in the Harvard Design Magazine Readers series concerns itself with "what people value in architecture and how changing values influence opinions about it." It comes at a time when aesthetic and technological concerns have displaced social ones when it comes to creating architecture, though no architect would deny that that course is in the process of reversing.

Featuring twelve essays and one interview culled from the pages of Harvard Design Magazine, this issue is framed by Michael Benedikt's lengthy introduction, grounded by his typically matter-of-fact writing. By asking the questions that the following essays could not possibly address adequately (by what criteria should honor be bestowed on architects and their buildings? who shall do the judging? who cares?), Benedikt extends the critiques of the essays beyond their specific subjects. In other words, the issues are far from being answered in this Reader. As Benedikt acknowledges, the only norm is flux, the ever-evolving values applied to architecture, hopefully fairly and objectively.

Many of the essays come from two volumes of the magazine: Number 7 from 1999, with the theme "Conflicting Values" (including an essay by Benedikt that appears to parallel his introduction here), and Number 14 from 2001 with the theme "What Makes a Work Canonical?" The essays from the latter are packed into the front of this Reader, making one think that issues of judgment are only approached by architects via the notions of icon and canon. Of course this isn't the case, but these issues are still important, even (or especially) at a time when apparently non-repeatable buildings like the Guggenheim in Bilbao have had such a strong impact on the profession, the public, and the media.

Gehry receives scant treatment in these pages, most notably eschewed in favor of architecture that lacks the image appeal of a Bilbao, but intelligently respond to the concerns architecture must deal with. Tim Culvahouse and Lisa Findley reacquaint readers with Sea Ranch, the 40-year old condominiums overlooking the Pacific Ocean by Charles Moore et. al. The authors ask why appreciation of the building -- embraced by architects at its inception and given a 25-year award by the AIA -- has dried up. Why didn't Sea Ranch's reworked Northern California vernacular become a canonical work? Diane Ghirardo asks a different question: why do quality buildings get passed over by the architectural media? She presents the Knickerbocker Residence in Brooklyn by Architrope, a muted, Rossi-esque design that only found mention in the New York Times Real Estate Section.

Ghirardo's essay is a fitting close to this Reader, one that touches on something most architects know: the architectural media is driven by projects that photograph well and that will sell magazines. Architectural Record is trying to address the gap between what most readers do and what they read, by allowing their readers to submit projects online (under the appealing "Community" moniker), though this is merely an extension of the predilection to base judgment on a couple images, making those images as (or more) important than the building itself. If the reader accepts Benedikt's assertion that value judgments must be fair, be objective, and incorporate the public, then this is a good place to start dealing about those issues.