On the eve of Design Awards judging, AIA Austin gathered its distinguished jury for a panel discussion about their work and individual points of view. Carol Ross Barney, FAIA, of Chicago’s Ross Barney Architects, Nonya Grenader, FAIA, associate director of Rice University’s Building Workshop and principal of her own small firm, Linda Taalman, of Los Angeles’ Taalman Koch, and Angela Watson, AIA, of Boston’s Shepley Bulfinch, represented a diverse mix of projects and opinions, making for a lively conversation. The panel was moderated by David Heymann, FAIA, professor at The University of Texas School of Architecture and author of "My Beautiful City Austin."
The panel began with each woman sharing a summary of her work and ideas. Ross Barney described her interest in cities and the institutions that bind them together. She shared one of the fundamental questions of her work: “Is architecture a right or is it a privilege? We’ve been trying to work in the area that it’s a right.” Currently, she is working on projects for clients like the Chicago Transit Authority and developing the Chicago Riverwalk.
Grenader began with a slide illustrating how the size of the single family home has grown over the decades, with homes three times the size now marketed to half the number of inhabitants. Her work with Project Row Houses in Houston’s Third Ward “focuses its research on the core: mechanical, electrical, plumbing—things we take for granted, but that constitute the heart of the building.” She also works on adaptive reuse projects, like an 1894 textile mill, and believes that “using less is more sustainable.”
Taalman discussed her work on the IT HOUSE, a customizable, pre-fabricated, sustainable house project. She is interested in “how one situates oneself within a landscape and respects that landscape,” and focuses on material research. For Taalman, her sustainable houses help to “preserve the landscape by being there” in a home that respects its environment.
Watson, a principal at Shepley Bulfinch, comes at sustainability from a different angle. She believes that the kinds of buildings that last are buildings people love, even if they aren’t perfectly functional. Working to preserve architectural history instead of tearing it down, she discussed the Phoenix branch of her firm’s offices in the South Rotunda of the Phoenix Financial Center, an iconic piece of midcentury design. Learning to live with the building and make it functional she said, was “an interesting exercise in learning how to live the way we think others should do.”
Then Heymann proceeded to ask about the jury process, characterizing the AIA Awards as “notoriously not full spectrum.” This sparked a discussion about the difficulties of presenting a project with merely images. Ross Barney said that for her, an award-winning project has to be memorable. For Watson, an ability to convey emotion is essential. And for Taalman, successful spaces are “the ones that feel as though they were always intended to be there.”
In a final lightning round, Heymann cajoled the jurors to confess what their secret veto rule is when serving on a jury. His, he confessed, is staircases behind glass. For Watson, it is a lack of originality. Taalman and Grenader confessed that they tend to fight for the underdogs. Ross Barney pinpointed colored plans and patterned brick as her pet peeves.
Despite the all-female jury, the topic of gender in architecture did not come up, even when the panel opened to questions from the audience. This was perhaps a missed opportunity, but it was nonetheless powerful to see a panel composed entirely of female architects accomplishing a breadth of meaningful projects. With such a variety of perspectives, it will be fascinating to see the winners of the AIA Austin Design Awards, to be announced on May 12.