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Issue 1: Community Revitalization

The Bruner Awards Selection Process

by Dr. Roberta Feldman

Every two years since 1987, the Bruner Foundation has offered an award for urban excellence. The Foundation does not pre-define urban excellence, rather it sets a general framework for inclusion: the places should be “real;” exemplify innovative and effective planning and implementation processes; and address consequential social, physical, economic, and ecological factors, while remaining consonant with local community values.

When I was asked to be a member of the 1997 Rudy Bruner Award selection committee, I knew the process was going to be different from the design juries I have sat on in the past. I didn’t realize, however, just how unique it would be. The award’s call for submissions and application requirements, the selection committee composition, and selection process all challenge conventional architectural and urban design award objectives and procedures, and ultimately the projects that receive recognition.

Unlike the customary jury where you review slides and/or boards, assert and debate your opinion of the work, and choose the winners — all typically accomplished in one day or less — the Rudy Bruner selection committee’s deliberations spanned several months. Work began prior to the first of two meetings upon receipt of a large ring-bound book containing the abstracts of the submission materials for 80 diverse projects. The Rudy Bruner Award call for entries is directed to community development corporations, non-profit organizations, and public agencies, rather than requesting materials solely from designers. The call requested information about the project objectives, text-based descriptions and visual images, the roles of key participants (e.g. sponsoring organization, developer, public agency, and designer), and information on project financing and implementation.

The selection committee met over two weekends approximately six months apart. The experiences we brought to the review process were varied and deep. We represented a range of expertise involved in the design and production of the built environment: Susan Rice, senior vice president of Fleet Bank, N. A., Kurt Schmoke, mayor of Baltimore, Robert M. Weinberg, chairman of Market Place Development, and myself, a professor of architecture and co-director of the City Design Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

We began our collaborative review the morning following a get together dinner to acquaint ourselves with the selection procedures and each other. We were confronted with a vast body of information on each of the projects, sometimes as much as 100 pages of material. I was struck by the effort extended by the submitters, and can only assume the perceived reward was of significant worth to them. It was an arduous but heartening task to review the projects which varied both in scale and function, especially those that provided alternatives to conventional uses. It was, in fact, impossible for each of us to give a thorough review of all of the projects, so the selection committee divided up the work, with each member evaluating in detail a portion and reporting back to the committee.

With all this abundance of information and such a diverse committee, I expected that the selection process would be labored and fraught with disagreement. I was wrong. Despite our varied perspectives, agreement was readily reached on a subset of approximately 20 projects.

Reaching consensus on the finalists, however, proved considerably more difficult, in large part because the projects were not easily compared. They varied in social, political, economic, and physical contexts, their objectives, and scale. Reluctantly, in the most difficult task of the review process, we choose five finalists for further consideration:

  • Sun Gate Terrace, Oakland, California, a high density, low rise affordable housing development with 92 townhouse and apartment units above 14,000 sf of retail, community, childcare, and Headstart facilities, and outdoor recreational spaces.
  • Center on the Square, Roanoke, Virginia, an adaptive reuse of a 150,000 sf warehouse, built in 1914, into a cultural center creating a financially viable home for the Art Museum of Western Virginia, Mill Mountain Theater, Roanoke Valley History Museum, the Science Museum of Western Virginia, and the Arts Council of the Blue Ridge.
  • Project Row House, Houston, Texas, the preservation and rehabilitation of a one-and-one-half-block of historic African American shotgun-style houses to accommodate an African American public art project, an after-school program, and a young mothers’ residential program.
  • Cleveland Historic Warehouse District, Cleveland, Ohio, the adaptive reuse of an abandoned, Victorian commercial district into a residential mixed use development in downtown Cleveland.
  • The Times Square, New York, New York, the preservation and rehabilitation of an infamous and dilapidated hotel in New York’s theater district into 652 efficiency apartments with social and job training services to promote self-sufficiency and independence for low-income and previously homeless adults, many with special needs.

In the conventional design jury process, our task would have been nearly over. Rather than choose the winner with the information at hand, however, the selection committee had at our disposal a team of professional evaluators that were prepared to assess the success of the project according to both the submitter’s stated project objectives and questions we had raised. While I was pleased to have the availability of this service, I would have much preferred to personally visit the sites and reach my own conclusions. Unfortunately, like the conventional urban design and architectural jury process, the reviewer is greatly disadvantaged by lack of direct engagement with the buildings and its designers, developers, and occupants.

Over the course of the next six months, the evaluation team visited each of the sites to interview all relevant parties involved in the project design and development, to observe the buildings in use, and collect additional visual documentation. The information they brought back to the selection committee — slides and a 20 page report on each project — allowed us to reassess our decisions. I was reassured that our choices appeared to have held up upon the close inspection of the research team.

With this additional information, the selection committee reconvened to focus on the difficult task of choosing the winner. The Times Square project stood out because of the sheer scale of the challenges it faced in meeting its multiple agendas: preserving the historic character of the building and the district; securing affordable housing for previously homeless and low income residents in a district with high priced hotels; providing high quality physical amenities, social services, and job training; securing a financial package without any private funds; and garnering the support from the New York City government, including substantial financial support.

The Rudy Bruner Award pushes the architectural award process well beyond its current limitations. Unlike conventional architectural awards, where the criteria and process favor visual impact, the Rudy Bruner Award recognizes projects that serve the public good. It seeks to acknowledge not only formal innovation, but emphasizes multiple criteria in defining excellence. Projects are rewarded for seeking a positive impact on their everyday users as well as the larger society.

The award also gives due recognition to the collective effort required to design, develop, implement, and manage a built project. Rather than celebrating the false notion of individual genius — that is, giving sole recognition to an individual architect and/or firm — the Rudy Bruner Award is given to the multiple actors who contributed to the excellence of a project.

Perhaps most importantly, the Rudy Bruner award process creates a selection environment in which jurors are given the opportunity to make more informed decisions. I have sat through all too many design juries in which the participants (myself included) are seduced by dazzling visual presentations, or by the opportunity to assert one’s personal design predilections. In this selection process, I was compelled to remain focused on the projects’ multiple merits and be a more responsible reviewer.

Dr. Roberta Feldman is Professor of Architecture and founding Co-director of the City Design Center in the College of Architecture and the Arts at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Currently, she is under contract with Cambridge University Press to write a book on Chicago public housing women residents’ activism to improve their developments. She has received HUD, Fannie Mae Foundation, and local foundation grants to pursue research in socially responsible housing and neighborhood design.

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