The Architect vs. the Public Vote: Who Should Decide? 2

Monday, August 31st, 2015
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The public vote is becoming increasingly popular in helping architectural projects come to fruition.

Governments, industry bodies and design professionals are reaching out to the public for their view on architectural designs and to gather feedback on competition entries proposed urban projects.

Public votes in design awards are also growing momentum.

The strategy aligns with a society that values transparency and an acknowledgment that the public should be heard as they are generally the people who will be inhabiting, using or visiting these architectural projects.

Last year, the anonymous Guggenheim Helsinki Design Competition was recognised as the largest of its kind for public voting. The competition drew 1,715 entries across 77 countries with a public exhibition of Stage 2 design finalists.

Locally, the Australian Institute of Architects launched its inaugural People’s Choice Award in conjunction with the 2014 National Architecture Awards. The public was invited to vote on 13 shortlisted houses.

Melbourne also looked to the public to help select the design for Flinders Street Station while Canberra recently placed the city’s new convention centre design by Italian architect Massimiliano Fuksas on public display.

The demand is clear. Members of the public want to know about projects planned for their city. They want to know if a new skyscraper will overshadow their local park or the type of restorations planned for a beloved heritage building.

However, as architects strive to see their urban projects gather support, who knows best?

Gavin Kain, Woods Bagot principal and global lifestyle sector leader, has views on who should indeed be making these  decisions, the people who use the buildings or the professionals who understand them?

At its core, an architectural project needs to be worthwhile and its success is dependent on a “clear and compelling story,” according to Kain.

“The key to this process is to outline the research (the why) and the vision/principles” he said. “Then any urban design strategy (how) much be clearly tied back to the principles and research.”

Kain has also observed risks associated with the public vote. Sometimes a well-marketed project could gather support, as could one with a striking but not entirely purposeful design.

“The risk of a public vote is that the complex city issues will likely get lost and therefore the outcome could be detrimental for the city,” he said. “A better approach, in my view, is to be more inclusive. So that community feedback can at least be responded to-even if not directly actioned.”

Kain notes that the design professionals are there for a reason and a public vote could compromise project outcomes.

“I have, over time, come to the conclusion that our clients hire us for our expertise and insights (not options for example),” he said.

“Therefore we must be strong in articulating these insights. The community does have experience in using public buildings. But they don’t have experience in creating them. They also don’t have experience in taking responsibility for these projects (it is easy to be a critic).

“One of the hardest things for designers to do is to step forward and say this is what the solution should be and why. A vote, in a way, removes this important aspect – who takes on the responsibility for our key urban projects?”

However this is not to remove public participation completely; Kain sees an increasing role for the public vote as an influencer rather than a decision maker.

While the rise of online feedback, survey and rating systems is a convenient way to gather information,  Kain does caution reacting to online feedback.

“Online feedback loops can influence government and private clients (as well as designers),” he said. “History is filled with examples where the minority turned out to be ‘right.’ After all, the community response to the Sydney Opera House was less than encouraging to start with. However that building has gone on to play a major role in defining Australia as a nation. What would we be without it?”

So who does Kain believe is the right person or group to make these decisions?

“I personally believe that having the public involved from the outset is important,” he said. “But the trained professionals need to take responsibility for interpreting and responding to that feedback with inspiring/appropriate design. As a community we must learn to respect the role of the designer. In turn the designer must take responsibility for the work they do.”

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  1. Marie Fedor

    A great idea – members of design professions can all too often become insular and out of touch with public tastes.

  2. Steve Ryder

    It is a tough one. The public are after all often the 'clients' in that they are the one's using the building. Of course, unfortunately, the vocal majority often have the worst taste! Witness the X-Factor and the like. At least after these public votes, singers disappear into obscurity (eventually). Buildings remain (or at least it's a lot more expensive to get rid of them!)