The Third Annual Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectual Design Excellence 2001
Berkeley Prize 2001

2001 Berkeley Prize Competition Commentary

2001 Berkeley Prize Competition Commentary

by John Cary, Jr.

As a graduate student in the Department of Architecture at Berkeley and a member of the Berkeley Prize Committee, I've had the unique opportunity to observe almost every aspect of the 2001 Berkeley Prize Competition. Professor Lifchez invited me to share a few of my thoughts on the Berkeley Prize, which I believe is one of the most important and unique opportunities available to undergraduate architecture students.

Throughout the course of my undergraduate education at the University of Minnesota, I actively sought to link my personal studies to greater community involvement. During my second year, I enrolled in an interdisciplinary community service-learning course through the university's extension service--a course that I eventually co-taught. The approaches to learning and service employed by the class revealed innumerable connections between my studies in architectural theory and design, the social sciences, and my daily life. This realization was perhaps the most identifiable motivation for me to link my on-going coursework with community and professional service. For me, these are prime examples of architecture as a social art.

Upon graduation, in conjunction with my service on the 1999-2000 Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA) Board of Directors, I had the opportunity to serve as a member an ACSA standing committee that oversees its Architects in Society Initiative. Building on my undergraduate experiences, research, and corresponding honors thesis, as well as some preliminary research done by the committee, I compiled and edited a 120-page sourcebook that was recently published by ACSA Press. This book has been very well received and has served as a catalyst for many recent ACSA initiatives.

My ongoing work through the ACSA has spawned invitations to present my findings at a number of professional and scholarly meetings throughout the country. While most have been short-term discussions on a variety of issues relating to community design and the role of community service in architectural education, my involvement with the Berkeley Prize for Architectural Design Excellence Competition has provided a unique opportunity watch this discussion extend across continents, time, and, on a personal level, two very different periods in my life.

I was first approached by Professor Lifchez in February 2000-before I had even been accepted to the MArch program at Berkeley--to help publicize the second annual Berkeley Prize Competition nationally. Still, I didn't fully realize how special the competition really was until the submissions starting filtering in on the Berkeley Prize Web site. By simply looking at the range of countries and schools represented at every stage of the competition, it became quite clear that the abstracts and essays represent an international cross-section of undergraduate thinking and understanding on the concept of architecture as a social art. But most significantly, they contain refreshing perspectives about the role of the discipline and profession of architecture in supporting this ideal.

While the primary goal of the competition remains to challenge students to think about architecture as a social art, in conjunction with the seminar noted above, I've attempted to capture the spirit of this competition, distill its most valuable ideas and references, and redistribute the findings through a series of teaching and writing initiatives. These initiatives will inform future competitions while simultaneously building and documenting a landmark international discussion.

General Findings
In addressing this year's question, many of the essays attempted to address larger or more general questions such as "What is architecture?" and "What does it mean to be an architect?" Within the first few lines of their essays, many literally defined architecture via a single word or short phrase. Architecture is: accommodation, appropriation, communication, elevation, hope, manna, public science, revelation, social science, etc. Accordingly, many framed architecture as a noun, a product, or thing. Others defined it as action: a necessarily social process or "social responsibility in action," as one student from the University of Minnesota contended.

People quoted and referenced an array of things from rap lyrics to figureheads like Winston Churchill, Vitruvious, Thomas Jefferson, graphic designer Tibor Kalman, and even The Bible. Still, others quoted cult movies such as The Matrix and Fight Club or even the popular movie about the suburbs, Edward Scissorhands. Some references were more predictable such as Frank Lloyd Wright and someone who is almost as frequently recognized by the public as the stereotypical architect, Howard Roark of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead. The most referenced book was Garry Steven's The Favored Circle--a controversial look at the profession of architecture, but one that also accurately discusses the role of clients and users. Finally, of little surprise, the people or groups that were referenced in the competition introduction, namely Aldo van Eyck and Team X, drew a significant number of references, as did predictable hot topics such as technology and the Internet.

The exact references aside, I believe it is more important to note that most people spoke with confidence about and took ownership of the issues facing our profession and society in general by employing the terms "we architects," "we people," or "we students." Instead of more passive words like "would" or "could," many relied on more active words like "must, should, will, etc. Others referenced the concept of time arguing, "We are now poised to contribute to society."

Ironically, according to the limited demographic information requested of entrants, most of the participants were little more than halfway through their undergraduate education. And while they represent an array of pre-professional and professional program types, one has to wonder about the type of undergraduate courses that helped them formulate and articulate their understandings of architecture as a social art. Do their perspectives on it originate in architecture courses, general liberal arts courses, or a combination thereof? What kind of courses do or could best facilitate this important discussion?

Part of my original proposal was to consider how this could actually happen. Based on my fair understanding of Berkeley's undergraduate curriculum and thorough understanding of a dozen or so other school's undergraduate curriculum, it's fair to say that this concept is touched on in a variety of introductory courses, seminars, and even studios. Still, based on my limited undergraduate and graduate experiences, I would argue that the emphasis on architecture as a social art remains a secondary focus at best.

Perhaps that is why I'm such a big fan of the Building Community report compiled by the late Ernest Boyer and Lee Mitgang on behalf of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. In its seventh chapter/goal, "Service to the Nation," among other things, the authors state:

"Students and faculty alike should regard civic activism as an essential part of scholarship."

"For students to recognize the professional and ethical importance of civic engagement in their own lives, such behavior ought to govern the day-to-day conduct of each faculty member and the school as a whole."

"...[A]ll programs should provide students more opportunities to integrate civic affairs into the curriculum itself."

"Schools...must place far greater priority in preparing graduates to be effective and empathetic communicators, able to advocate with clarity for the beauty, utility, and ecological soundness of the built environment."

"It is not enough...for schools to provide students with community experiences for their own sake. The goal should be to provide opportunities for students and faculty to work together in communities to produce genuine scholarship with broad applicability, and to disseminate those findings so that others can benefit from those experiences."

In typical Building Community report criticism tradition, the question of how? remains.

Finally, many of the respondents danced around the question, "What does it mean to be an architect?" This, or a question close to it such as "Why do you want to be an architect," is a recurring question on architecture school applications, scholarship forms, and even tests. Technically (in the eyes of the state licensing boards and the profession), none of us will find out until we've passed the Architects Registration Examination, but we'll inevitably be asked and expected to work and think like one much sooner. 
Addressing this idea, the new ArchRecord2, a Web portal within the Architectural Record Web site, recently posed the same question to its readership: "What, or who, inspired you to become an architect?" A New Zealand architect responded, "To have an effect…to make something to be proud of…to change the way that people see." Another quoted one of his teachers who apparently confided in his students, "Architecture is everywhere; people experience it every day of their lives. You can stand back and look at it like paintings; you can walk around it and appreciate the detail like sculpture. Most importantly, you can go inside and get the total experience." The student concluded with "This obviously wasn't what inspired me in the first place, but it inspires me to keep going." I think that idea of how our motivations change throughout our education and career is an important one.
Looking back at one essay response, I was especially taken by a reference to the 19th-Century theorist, Henri de Saint-Simon, who described architecture and architects with a symbiotic metaphor: that they are both a "lamp" and a "mirror" for society, directing its social progress as well as representing its current condition. 
Original Assumptions

Following are the four quotes that I selected during the second week of a seminar led by Berkeley Professor Donlyn Lyndon, FAIA, with a special three-week component led by Team X co-founder, Peter Smithson:

"While we (architects) doggedly pursue ways of achieving aesthetic goals in buildings, we act rather timidly in the pursuit of public policy changes that would enable us to reach no less ambitious goals in practice."

--Thomas Fisher, In the Scheme of Things, Alternative Thinking on the Practice of Architecture

"I am proud to be an architect and don't propose we go out and tear down any buildings. I do propose, however, we tear down some of the myths and misperceptions that architects have about public policy and vice versa."

--Thomas Jefferson, architect and statesman

"By our very nature, architects are constructive, cooperative and creative problem solvers and as such, have splendid leadership qualities to offer. Likewise, public policy can only evolve and mature, if architects better use their integrated creative skills to have a greater say in local, national and international governmental affairs…I only suggest that architecture is made up of much more than just the aesthetics of design, and that we must consider a broader set of issues, and set new objectives for participation in public life."

--Excerpted from "Leadership by Design: Public Policy and the Practice of Architecture" by Richard Nelson Swett, FAIA, published in ArchVoices intern newsletter (12/00)

"The realization of an architectural design isn't purely a technical matter. It also has a cultural dimension--It is not only the public use of buildings that makes architecture a social art, it is also the architect's engagement with clients, communities, contractors and others whose participation is required to alter the material world. If architects can fully gratify their creativity on paper, they are squandering the opportunity they have to activate the creativity of others."

--Herbert Muschamp, critic, The New York Times, "A Fleeting Homage to an Architect Who only Dreams"

Like many of the competition responses, the above quotes stress the need for architects to engage in activities beyond traditional architectural services in the same way that I argue students should engage in activities well beyond their architectural studies. More importantly, the quotes stress the importance of communication among our discipline, profession, and the public.

As stated above, I was introduced to the Berkeley Prize Competition while working in a number of capacities with the collateral organizations of architecture (ACSA, AIA, AIAS, NAAB, and NCARB) attempting to do just that. The majority of our collateral discussions continue to stress the contributions of community design centers, design/build programs, livable communities, etc., and yet only one of the 77 original abstracts (authored by the 2000-2001 AIAS National Vice President) made direct reference to any one of these initiatives.

Still, I contend that the reason more didn't is not a result of lack of interest, but rather a lack of awareness that such programs exist. Raising awareness and understanding of the unique opportunities afforded to students, faculty, and our respective communities through civic engagement, community design, design/build, and basic voluntarism, should remain a primary goal. These types of programs are based on and nurture the principles and objectives that can best guide architects committed to the concept of architecture as a social art.

John Cary is a MArch candidate in the Department of Architecture at Berkeley and a member of the Berkeley Prize Committee. He earned a BA in architecture, summa cum laude, from the University of Minnesota and served as the 1999-2000 AIAS National Vice President as well as the 1999-2000 editor-in-chief of Crit, the journal of the AIAS. John has been published and recognized nationally for his writings on architectural internship, community design, and student involvement. He is currently co-authoring a book on the Italian architect and writer, Giancarlo De Carlo, a founding member of Team X. John can be reached by email at

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