Observations and Images on Architecture, Culture and More, in Chicago and the World. See it all here.







It's the American Institute of Architect's 150th anniversary.
So they've given us the gift of of America's Favorite Architecture, the nation's 150 favorite building. It's OK to laugh.

 -by Lynn Becker








"Mom and dad, you can sit here, the three children, over there, grandmother, uncle, please take those last two seats. Now, you see those large books in front of you? They contain 72 mug shots of people we've pre-determined are somehow related to you. We'd like you to rate each of them from "most liked" to "least liked", and from your judgments, we'll tell you which members of your family you love best."

That's pretty much the story behind the American Institute of Architects just published list of America's Favorite Architecture, drawn from a survey created by Harris Interactive. As a PR ploy, it's been a wild success, churning up great pools of ink, including stories from critics from the Tribune's Blair Kamin to the San Harold L. Washington Library, HappyFrancisco Chronicle's John King. Kamin at one point alludes to the survey's flaws, but basically the critics have drunk the kool-aid, somberly discussing why the Bellagio in Las Vegas comes in at 22 but Adler and Sullivan's Auditorium at 147, pondering whether the list represents a repudiation of modernism, etc. etc. Not since the Lingerie Bowl has so much been written about so little.

King quotes AIA President R K Stewart saying it was all about setting "up a dialogue with the public . . . This isn't necessarily the design professional's view of the best buildings, but the emotional connection to where people live and work and play."

Emotions? Yeeeeuch. America's Favorite Architecture is the kind of lazy, publicity seeking gambit you usually associate with People Magazine's 50 Sexiest Bachelors or the American Film Institutes increasingly desperate excuses for a TV show that have gone steadily downhill since the initial "100 Greatest American Movies" - this year's edition: "The 50 Greatest Movie Belches."

If this was a real dialogue, the list would inevitably include Chicago's slant-roofed Smurfit-Stone Building, hated by the critics but beloved by the public. Instead, two Smurfit Stone Building, Chicagoof the 150 favorite buildings in America are Apple stores in Manhattan. Who knew? If this was truly a popular dialogue, why, other than Radio City, are there no movie palaces on the list - not even as failed nominations? No Chicago or Tivoli theaters, no Fox in San Francisco, St Louis or Detroit. The demolished Penn Station and Larkin Buildings make the list, but no Chicago Stock Exchange or Schiller Building. No Riverview. No Coney Island. If this is a real survey of America's best loved buildings, where's Disneyland's Sleeping Beauty Castle?

When Stanley Tigerman rails against architectural firms marketing themselves as if they were potato chips, he appears more than a bit out of touch, but something like the AIA survey makes him sound right on the money. AIA's "survey methodology" document reads like a satire of pollsters run amuck:

"Members could nominate as many as 20 of their favorite structures in 15 predetermined categories; an “other” category was included for structures that did not clearly fit in the 14 specific categories."

"From the member nominations, a list of the top 247 structures was developed for inclusion in the survey of the public. These 247 structures represent all works receiving six or more individual mentions from AIA members. For the public survey, 1,804 U.S. adults, age 18 and older, were interviewed between December 27, 2006, and January 3, 2007. Respondents evaluated up to 78 structures, selected in random order from the larger list of 247. Respondents were shown a photograph of each structure they evaluated." [Note: A photograph, a single photograph representing a three dimensional building. Just like ordering a Russian bride on the internet.]

"The list of “America’s Favorite Architecture” was calculated using the mean score from the likeability scale used to evaluate each project in the public survey. In the case of ties in the mean score, structures were ranked by the number of times they were mentioned as a respondent’s personal favorite, and then by the number of nominations the structure received in phase one. " [I'm not making this up, you know.]

"With pure probability samples, with 100 percent response rates, it is possible to calculate the probability that the sampling error (but not other sources of error) is not greater than some number. With a pure probability sample of 1,804 U.S. adults, one could say with a 95 percent probability that the overall results have a sampling error of +/- 2.31 percentage points. With a pure probability sample of 2,214 U.S. adults, one could say . . . " [Oh please, just shut up.]

AIA's stewardship of this misguided survey oscillates between schoolmarm and carnival pitchman, and it doesn't bring out the best in either. And so we get this mush of measuring "likeability". You know who scores way up there on my likeability index? The guy who brings me my pizza, but I don't confuse him with the great loves of my life. To the AIA, however - same, same.

If ever there was a need for un-aided recall, this was it. If you have to be led through a photo book to remember who you love, you really don't love anybody.



Join a discussion on this story.



© Copyright 2007 images and text Lynn Becker All rights reserved.


Richard Nickel's Chicago
Sketches of Frank Gehry

James Turrell's Skyspace at UIC

Planning and Its Disconnects in the city of Chicago