My Turn: Capitol designs just a starting point

Posted: Friday, February 25, 2005

Last Thursday, I smiled as I pored over the 16 boards representing the lasted round of the Capitol Planning Commissions competition submittals. Two thoughts went through my mind; one was the appreciation at the high level of design and the other was bracing for the inevitable skepticism that could erode popular support. What became apparent in discussing this issue was that the process and the importance of this opportunity succeeding were becoming lost.

Let me begin by congratulating the Capitol Planning Commission, and more importantly, Bruce Botelho for his leadership and vision. I feel that they understand the position this region is in and the benefit this is to the state.

To those who are still catching their breath from what they saw in the newspaper last week, I ask that you understand the competition process, the importance of visionary design, and more importantly, becoming involved.

The four individual concepts represented just three and a half weeks of work by the competitors. These concepts allow the selection committee opportunity to gauge strong conceptual visions about what a new Capitol could be. I sensed that many folks believe that the four designs represented finished work and this is simply not the case.

Comments I heard were critical of the way the roofs looked or what the Taku winds would do to the windows. There was seldom a comment on the idea of the plan or the designer's purpose. We are only in the final design team selection process. After this selection process, one team is selected and the design process begins all over again with our involvement.

My response to the four concepts is that the work was visionary and appropriate given what we asked the design teams to deliver. Visionary design work, by nature, is unique and different. In principle that is the point. I understand that these designs are new to many of us, but so is the idea of a capitol that represents so much of who we are as a state. The fact that so many have expressed their opinion showed that the designs hit their mark. If the designs hadn't invoked a strong reaction, then I say that they would have failed in this phase of the process.

It is also important to understand why these designs seem so unique. We have asked talented design teams to interpret Alaska symbolically. From the designers' standpoint, Alaska is an incredible place. As a native of Alaska, I am proud that this competition not only receives interest from world-renowned designers, but that they also express such a passion for this state's vision and potential. They also pose an important question to its citizens: "What is the appropriate expression our capitol should portray to the world?"

From my point of view, it should be nothing less than a unique visionary design. Alaska is far beyond four walls, a roof and a dome. We must not accept mediocrity and reduce the symbol of our state to one that could be developed by the lowest bidder in both resources and meaning. I find it sad that recent alternate proposals, incredibly enough, propose placing our capitol in a renovated shopping mall complex, a downtown mid-rise, or a vacated fish processing plant. I feel strongly that we as Alaskans understand the difference.

Please take time to understand the ideas presented last week. Read the narrative; look at the conceptual diagrams, the site relationships, how the interior spaces work, the ideas about connection to the natural environment and to the sympathetic use of materials.

It is not just a view of the building from Douglas that we should be basing our criticism on. We need to understand the process of a design competition and the selection process. We should understand the responsibility of this design to be more than what is acceptable. And finally, I ask that we become involved in the effort to build a long-overdue symbol of our state and become an active participant in the process.

The official presentation of the four finalists to the selection jury is on Feb. 28 and is open to the public. I ask that you show up, listen to the conceptual ideas, become informed and keep an open mind.

• James Bibb is a practicing architect in Juneau. He is also the Southeast Section chairperson of the Alaska American Institute of Architects.



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