Saturday, August 26, 2006

2006 Ken Roberts Memorial Delineation Competion: A Call for Entries

The practice of architecture involves a wide variety of intersecting disciplines. Art, Physics, Math, Philosophy, Sociology, Religion, Biology are all emodied in the way we shape our built environment. Such matters often come into focus long before the final construction drawings are completed during the intial design phases. In contrast to the dull, highly specific information found in a construction drawing set, the first few sketches and colored renderings reveal a building's driving concept with dramatic clarity. Visual communications are essential on conveying ideas that are impossible to articulate verbally. Designers who have mastered skills in drawing and rendering frequently provoke greater receptiveness to their ideas. An elegant rendering of a building will sell a building far more than a well executed set of technical drawings.

Architecture competions have been common for a long time as a means of stimulating novel design solutions to a chosen site. The juries that select winners of these competitions judge submissions based on the merits of the project's concept, its appropriateness to the given problem and the effectiveness of its presentation. The renderings of these submissions are often dazzling and in isolation are true works of art.

And yet there are few if any major architectural competitions that award the artistry and sophisticated techniques involved in architectural rendering. It is for this reason that the Dallas chapter of the American Institute of Architects has sponsored for 32 years the most senior architectural drawing competion in the world, the Ken Roberts Memorial Delineation Competition. Continuing a yearly tradition the began in the late 1920's by the Architectural League of New York, the Ken Roberts awards both architectural professionals and students who exhibit outstanding ability in hand illustration as well as computer-based rendering. Entries to come from throughout the country, and it is hoped that an even broader number of submissions from around the globe are received for this year's competition.

I've chosen to volunteer in the promotion of the Ken Roberts competition partly out of the inspiration I get from looking at the numerous striking renderings found in professional studios as well as in the darker corners of architecture schools. It is a valuable opportunity for anyone engaged in the pursuit of building design to exhibit their talents as illustrators. If you are one of the many from the field of architecture are quite pround of at least one of the drawings you prepared for a school project or for a real-life building, I encourage you to submit it to the Ken Roberts Competition before the end of this coming October. The competition is open to everyone, whether from the U.S. or abroad, whether as a student or as a professional. Student work will be judge in a category separate from professionals, and work that has been hand-drawn will be evaluated separately from computer-derived examples.

For the first time this year, entries can be submitted electronically (by either PDF or JPEG of a certain size), though you can deliver your entry by mail if you wish. Multiple entries are encouraged, and illustrations in any kind of media are welcome. There is a $400 cash prize for best hand-delineated entry, as well as another prize for best entry in digital media. The Best of Show entry, which may be either done by hand or digitally, will receive $500. Recipients of the jurors citation awards will receive a $100.00 gift certificate from Asel Art Supply. The awards will be presented on November 8th, and the winning entries will be exhibited at the AIA Dallas for two months thereafter.

Such awards are pretty generous considering that you might have already have a competitive entry lying around from recent school work or or ongoing commissioned project. No lost hours incurred from devising entire building schemes from scratch as demanded by most architectural competitions. Architects invest much time and effort in crafting projects, but rarely are true gems that result from the design of buildings ever recognized.

Pllease visit the official web site at, which will show examples of previous winners, as well as the kind of jurors that will pick the winners. Contact us at for any questions you might have. Please tell anyone you know who might be interested about the competition, and the Ken Roberts committee will be more than happy to answer any of your questions.

Click on these two images which provide detailed information regarding the Ken Roberts Memorial Delineation Competition.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Keepin' It Weird by Keepin' It the Same

Upon returning from my recent trip through the American Midwest, I’ve been reminded about how controversial architecture can be. Although few non-architects could tell you much about who the most famous architects are or what style a given building portrays, everybody has an opinion about which buildings are good or bad for their community. One often thinks that the construction of brand new buildings, whether they are new offices, residences, or civic landmarks is a sign of optimism and hope in the future. To outsiders, major construction projects are signs that a city is economically or at least fiscally healthy. From the point of view of poor inhabitants who have long struggled in communities offering few opportunities, the sight of construction cranes and scaffolding must buoy their spirits to witness something that is nothing but good.

But a city’s growth is also about its change into something permanently different. Although man is an adaptable creature that can overcome any change in his environment, he is also one that relishes a sense of predictability which allows him to be comfortable in his surroundings. It seems that the more a community prospers, the more concerns about quality of life arise, and the more antagonism against urban growth and change gain strength. NIMBY-ism (Not In My Back Yard) is often a response common to wealthier areas of a city against a new development that threatens its quality of life, usually because the people in those areas have achieved an ideal state that demands predictable comfort. Although cases of NIMBY-ism usually involve issues such as ecological impact and aesthetic disruption, the underlying conflict is informed by a fear of permanent change brought on by transforming the built environment.

In talking to a small group of residents in Madison, Wisconsin, I heard many opinions against the city’s growth. Whether it was the rapid rise of condominium towers dotting downtown, the recently built Frank Lloyd Wright-designed convention center, to the brand-new performing arts center, each development was suspect as to the actual benefit the state’s capital city. The typical questions were usually: Who can afford all these condominiums? What was wrong with the old civic auditorium? Isn’t the push to build convention centers really just a last-ditch effort by the city for desperately awaited revenue? Such criticisms that center on the actual need for a new facility, the dubious speculation for the elite or its flawed economics are actually quite valid. Since these criticisms are based on established facts and existing reality on the ground, they are often more persuasive than arguments for new buildings that rely on unverifiable estimates and abstract visions.

Madison is a university town and therefore is host to an eccentric cultural scene consisting of bohemians and traditional social outcasts. Many in the city relish its role as a liberal bastion surrounded the relative conservative rural areas that characterize the rest of Wisconsin. The emergence of new structures that symbolize wealth, bourgeois aspirations (the performing arts center, condos) and competitive boosterism (convention center, luxury hotels) goes against the communal and left-wing instincts of many of its long-time residents. There is a natural fear that the very fabric of the community is threatened by a new influx of middle and upper-income migrants which bring their own set of values that contrast sharply with native Madisonians.

This is similar to what is going on in Austin, a city which mirrors Madison in many ways except that it is a bit bigger and its transition to a bustling commercial center far more advanced. The slogan over there is “keep Austin weird”, which denotes that there was a time when the character of the city was indeed far more eccentric and that it should remain so. There are large portions of the city that still contain residents of a hippy and decidedly left-wing (or morally libertarian) leanings, but it is becoming more and more in difficult to stay due to rapidly rising real estate values. Yuppies are moving in, the tech sector dominates the local economy, and suburban growth encroaches ever further west towards the Hill Country plateau west of the city while massive new highways and bridges are being built to accommodate suburbs to the north (e.g. Roundrock). The consensus among long-time residents of Austin is that it wasn’t quite the place it once was (its golden age occurring during the 1970s). Aside from its distinct topography, there less that distinguishes Austin from other cities in Texas.

To those who oppose the city’s growth and development, it’s not only the loss of what once was but also what a particular faction could call as their own. There is little tolerance among the liberal-bohemians for newcomers that follow more traditional bourgeois lifestyles, who desire single-detached houses with two-car garage on quarter-acre lots. They accuse young professional singles who are buying condominiums downtown of homogenizing the city’s once supposedly distinctive night-life, while engendering the gradual bulldozing of old community businesses with new fitness gyms, grocery stores and other modern amenities.

In essence, such constant griping sounded by these factions, whether in Austin or Madison, is in essence a distinctly conservative impulse. Their opinions on these matters is based on their wish that the city’s growth remains static; or better, for the city to undo its recent growth and to become hospitable again to more liberal bohemians like themselves. This faction organizes itself to promote zero-growth policies against further development, rallying around protecting the local environment or preserving the city’s ‘authentic’ identity. The irony is that such policies only accelerate the rise in property values and with them unaffordable property taxes. Aside from the few former hippies who became business tycoons, most of these liberal bohemians earn relatively little income running low-profit businesses like trinket-selling shops and casual restaurants, or working in low-wage jobs in larger stores. This reality further undermines this faction to maintain the old status-quo, as cities often change to the dictates of its local business elites with considerable political leverage, not citizen-based coalitions who contribute relatively little tax revenue to the city’s coffers. The most these coalitions can accomplish is to stall development, which is often opposed by cash-starved city councils accommodating developers with tax credits on the promise that a new development will generate much needed tax revenue. Such political dynamics typical in most large municipalities overwhelms any grassroots effort with its own ideas on what their city should become.

The establishment of Madison’s new performing arts complex, the Overture Center, is a case in point. City politicians, always searching for ways to levy ever more revenue under the pressure of ever-rising budgets, are usually receptive to proposals that will stimulate new economic activity and consequent new tax revenue. Along comes a wealth businessman, Jerome Frautschi, who donates 205 million dollars of his own money to build a brand new state of the art performance hall with art galleries in the center of the city. The fact that the site of the new complex is located along State Street, Madison’s most cherished street for eccentrics, instigated heavy opposition from the liberal-bohemian faction. As part of a half-mile long pedestrian promenade fronted by an eclectic assortment of storefront facades from all periods, the Overture Center’s clean Modernist lines and its large scale (it occupies an entire urban block) are obvious visual intrusions to one’s impression of State Street. But the biggest underlying threat to partisans of the traditional State Street is the Overture Center’s effect on surrounding property values and taxes. Rents for the ground level retail spaces along the street have begun to rise, ensuring that many of the low yield-locally owned businesses that offer specialized fair will be unable to remain. National chain stores have gradually taken their place, as they are usually the only kind of tenants who can absorb the higher rents. In all the city’s coffers will probably make out well in the long run, collecting higher taxes from more valuable properties, at the cost of losing the former character of its best-known street.

Another major point of disgruntlement among the liberal-bohemian faction is that the city has to now maintain the Overture Center with tax dollars. Although operating expenses for the new center are expected to be a lot larger than the old civic auditorium it replaced, they are probably a small portion of the city’s annual overall budget. And despite the fact that the building’s construction was completely paid for with private dollars there has been widespread objection that taxpayers should ever contribute to the upkeep of a major cultural landmark for the city. It’s often the case that those who complain the loudest about how their tax dollars are spent are the ones who contribute relatively the least. Those who pay the most taxes and assume the greatest tax liability of any income group are often those who do desire a world-class facility and a desire to for their city to gain broader prestige. Such abstract aspirations are inherently bourgeois and antithetical to the values of community, simplicity and contemplation of the liberal bohemian faction.

After touring by myself the Overture Center without my friends’ knowledge (who shun it with passion) I was impressed by how well it turned out. Cesar Pelli’s scheme works well in transitioning the change in built scale from the administrative office district one side to the three story-high storefronts on the other side. A crisp modern idioms is in full display, sharply contrasting anything around it, but inserting an intriguing dialogue between its elegant formality and the hodge-podge casualness of the rest of the street. The site is distinct along State Street, as it occurs right to where the street itself terminates to the Wisconsin state capitol. The capitol is surrounded by much larger scale buildings containing offices, museum, and condos used by white-collar workers who likely would demand structures that lend prestige. One can get wonderful views of the city from the top steps of the Overture Center’s lobbies. What I think is helpful about the Center’s location is that it adds more programmatic complexity to a street that is mostly one long walk full of eateries, trinket stores, and small apparel shops. Now there is actual art to look at, a concert performed by a highly trained ensemble (as opposed to those oh-so-talented street performers), and a play to watch.

Unlike those factions who oppose almost any plan for future urban development, I embrace the view that the city is an unceasingly dynamic entity. Structures come and go, communities mutate through the ages in response to changes in the built environment. Certain patterns remain through time, such as the city’s street grid, its natural features as well as its sacred places that embody timeless importance to each generation of inhabitants. One thing that a city isn’t is an unchanging one, with its rises and declines often occurring many times over through long spans of time. For factions who have specific image of what their city should be, it should help to ask and consider what other groups’ ideas for they want their cities to become.

Cities are diverse places, a confluence a competing ideas and visions. For one minority group to hold the rest of the city captive to its narrow goals counters the messy give-and-take and ephemeral phenomena that make cities such exciting places. Maybe it’s just me but I look forward to seeing new buildings every time I return to the same city, since it satisfies my desire in witnessing progress in time and space.

Update: Here's a thoughtful post on urban dynamism from Dallas' very own Virginial Postrel.

Friday, August 18, 2006

I Hold the Ramsey’s Partly Responsible

I recently went to a county fair where I saw some kids I work with show off their cattle, hoping to place high enough to compete in the state fair. They were so proud of their heifers, steers and bulls, to the point where they spent hours grooming them, from making their tails bushy with cow hairspray to ridding them of all the excrement they routinely walk in. I couldn’t help but note the irony that Miss Champaign County was walking around, complete with sash letting everyone know who she was. I wonder if anyone else noted the eerie similarity between the way we parade cattle around and the way we parade ourselves around?

I completely understand the need to show and place cows; this is a way of ensuring we are good stewards of the animals, that we take care of them and get the most we can out of them. It also helps us scientifically understand more about the way cows are used for food and genetics, and helps us place a fair market value on them. (I am told there is simply no comparison in the quality of today’s cattle from 50 years ago. Thanks to these types of competition, cattle quality is superior to that from previous generations.) Now, why we do it with ourselves is beyond me. Just when I think we’re civilized, we do something as primitive as beauty pageants.

What’s even worse than Miss USA, however, is that 5 year-olds compete in these as well. Isn’t that a little too young to teach children that beauty is only skin deep? Pardon the cliché, but I don’t know what other values these sorts of pageants can possibly teach these children. Besides, of course, good posture. For that reason, I hold the Ramsey’s partly responsible for the death of their daughter. Even though it appears that someone is finally confessing to the murder of JonBenet Ramsey, I am not quite so ready to exonerate them for their part in making their daughter a target. I realize in the eyes of the law, they are innocent and even model citizens. But in a world where pedophilia is on the rise, why would you subject your daughter to such emotional brutality?

It is irritating that we look the other way when parents allow their children (who are barely old enough to even remember these formative years of their life) to participate in such sick competitions. Does it really matter that a child can wear make up, or dance or sing at the age of 5? Why is it okay that we glamorize this lifestyle, when the children have no opportunity to say no?

It is this sort of activity that reminds me that so many of our problems in America are self-inflicted. Systemic poverty and no father among the poor? This wasn’t nearly as big a problem before LBJ’s Great Society. Lung disease, diabetes and obesity? Smoking and high-sugar diets seem to help bring these on. I don’t want to turn this into a complaining session. I just want to point out that while the Ramsey’s didn’t inflict the fatal blow, they were complicit in what I see as a very sick culture. Perhaps the right people haven’t made the compelling arguments for putting children in this sort of limelight. But to me, it is asking for trouble when we see the totality of the human person in such a narrow light. After all, what else are we expected to value about JonBenet if her own parents don’t see beyond her glamorous possibilities?

Friday, August 11, 2006

Prophets and Martyrs: Can You Choose to Be Either?

In both the radical right wing of Islam and the radical left wing of Mainline Protestants, I see a resurgence of classical religious paradigms: the prophet and the martyr. As I hear of “martyrs” on suicide missions trying to wipe out as much of the West as possible or left-leaning American “prophets” critical of the West’s economic or foreign policies, I can’t help but think that not only are these two groups strange bedfellows, they also have come to rely on faulty understandings of both vocations. More problematic than that, however, is the arrogance it must take to give yourself the title of prophet or martyr, an arrogance which negates either title from being applicable.

Part of the problem with these words being so carelessly thrown around is that they will negate the power of the prophet or martyr’s role. Because history generally respects true prophets and martyrs, modern day self-idolizers have taken to use the term as they think it applies to them, hoping to borrow the power of the title to claim a monopoly on all things just, right, and ordained of God. I had similar thoughts when I wrote this. When someone starts talking about “social justice,” all of a sudden, we assume they are the all-caring, all-knowing, all-feeling god/goddess of compassion, when actually, they are at times selfishly claiming a monopoly on truth. But just because someone claims it doesn’t make it so. The same is true here. I am hoping the time is coming were self-assigned prophets and martyrs are ignored, so the real prophets among us may be listened to, and the real martyrs remembered.

I am by no means an Old Testament scholar, but the knowledge I do have tells me that prophets were two things that modern day prophets often are not: chosen by God, and generally unpopular. To be a prophet means to say things that invariably go against the tide, but often speaking to your own group. Amos spoke to his own group about their hypocrisies. Didn’t Elijah, Elisha, and Jonah also do the same? The prophets of old spoke to the Israelites, to remind them of their covenants with God, to keep them on the right path, am I wrong? And for this, they were often hated, appreciated like most great artists well after their deaths. To be a prophet should not involve media celebrity, but more likely a lonely life, one that involves isolation, betrayal, and possibility of death. (The martyrs I mention below could use some good prophets.) John the Baptist is the greatest New Testament example of the costs of prophecy (besides Jesus Christ himself who holds the job title “prophet” in a singular manner given his divine status). John spoke against the sexual antics of his own Jewish (or part Jewish) king, Herod. Ultimately, it cost him his head on a platter.

So when I hear left-leaning Christians confuse policy matters in DC with prophecy, when I hear them say that they are the new prophets who are called to fight for change, I must confess that my usually iron stomach is weakened. Besides bad economics, I find most self-acclaimed “prophets” in liberal mainline churches to be people that are angry at the world for their “exclusionary practices”, and instead of choosing humility before God and Church, they designate themselves “prophets” and demand to be included, no matter the reason they aren’t. But being prophetic does not merely mean railing at those who don’t like you; it means calling God’s people back to God. If you are doing prophetic work, it will speak for itself. The title will come in good time.

As far as martyrs go, doesn’t it seem rather arrogant to name yourself a martyr? Like that of the prophet, shouldn’t that designation be assigned by someone else? If being a martyr is a privilege, or an honor, how humble is it to choose how one will do it? Also, what is the distinction between being a defender of the faith until the point of death, and knowingly killing innocent people and yourself, supposedly for the faith?

I realize this strikes most sane people as obvious, but Nazi’s killing you because you’re a priest standing for your faith before the state is not the same as suicide that takes out women and children in the process. Martyrs die for what they believe, because the hostile world has left them only these two options: give up your faith or die. Until the world or even their home nation quits allowing Muslims to practice their faith, they commit a grave error in calling themselves martyrs. They are not faced with the limited options of life or faith. In most parts of the world, they have the option to have both. Unfortunately, the same is not true for Christians, who are regularly persecuted in Muslim nations, not to mention communist nations.

Does they miss the hypocrisy completely? That which they feel they are victims of they themselves commit! What audacity to proclaim themselves martyrs, when their faith is tolerated in so many of the countries that they hate. It is not up to me or any non-Muslim to straighten out their doctrine; Islamic leaders, if the faith is capable of all that the optimists say it is, must proclaim that this is not martyrdom but an evil manipulation of any religion outside of Satanism. It is so hard for me to imagine Christians ignoring Tim McVeigh if he said his execution was martyrdom, yet this goes on the Islamic world all too often.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Sarcasm: The New Generations' Weapon of Choice

Hanging out with 12 to 16-year olds for two weeks on two different church camps recently made me realize again how popular sarcasm is a method of communicating for that age group. One quip after another proved that honest open communication and even affection between teenagers is somewhat rare, happening in private, behind closed doors if at all. It seemed much easier for these kids to relate with other in exaggerated manners of speaking, self-deprecation and mutual teasing more than simply being honest and concerned for each other. Don’t get me wrong; these were great kids with good hearts. They’ve just learned that sarcasm is a “better” way for them to relate to one another. And sarcasm as the preferred way to speak is not limited only to teenagers. Generation X has long prized sarcasm as a valuable skill.

I remember in my single days (as of 08/06/06, I am officially no longer single, thank God) reading profiles on or similar websites, and remarking how often people looked for others with a penchant for sarcasm. Not only that, but when Gen Xers described themselves, it was clear that they saw their sarcastic tendancies as one of their greatest gifts to offer others in a relationship. This question kept coming up in my mind: why would anyone value such an annoying characteristic in someone else? Didn’t we avoid such people in the past because it was hard to see them as trustworthy, or certainly as very straight shooters? Since when did sarcasm become such a worthwhile possession? It is true that good sarcasm at the right time and place can be wonderful wit. If used sparingly in familiar company, a lot of laughs can be derived from sarcasm.

But we’ve reached a time when sarcasm is not used sparingly, but persistently, and annoyingly. My theory is that sarcasm is en vogue because Generations X and Y have a hard time relating in mature ways with one others in their age range. (I’m not sure which I’m a part of; I think I barely made that troubled Gen X.) Even at a time when sex in some form or another is practiced by many middle school age and most high school age kids, sarcasm is popular not because it always brings people closer, but because it avoids the stages of discomfort that come in forming lasting bonds. Sarcasm by nature involves speech loaded with double meanings, which makes clear communication difficult. Because sarcasm usually involves words that should be easy enough to understand and a tone that contradicts the meaning of the words, sarcasm ultimately keeps others at bay, and leaves them wondering what you really meant. The Kids in the Hall skit (which I do find hilarious) explains it all.

But aren’t the pitfalls of this readily apparent? Isn’t it obvious that the great relationships (think marriages, best friends, etc.) are great because they involve clear communication, affection and mutual building up? Sarcasm is a weapon because it prevents all of these things from happening. Therefore, persistent sarcasm as a manner of speech will stunt the growth of teenagers, and it will make real intimacy between two people that much more difficult. I would go so far as to say that because this real intimacy has been lost, substitute intimacy in the way of sex has attempted (and failed) to fill the void. Is it any wonder that the generations that prize their sarcastic habits also seem to devalue sex and real affection?

Perhaps it has always been this way. Maybe teens have always related in such a way because it is safer. If you are on the offensive with sarcasm as your weapon, it is harder for others to hurt you. It just seems as though we prize a very strange thing when we tout the values of sarcasm. Sarcasm keeps others at a distance, leaves them wondering what you really meant and makes the truly worthwhile relationships that much more difficult to manage. I can only say that I will try to use sarcasm more sparingly, so I don’t end up like the Lonely Sarcastic Guy from The Kids in the Hall.