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“Can a wastewater system be pretty? The answer is yes,” says Roberta Pennington, an interior designer at SERA Architects, a multidisciplinary firm based in Portland, Oregon. She’s talking about the Living Machine she encountered at the new Port of Portland headquarters, where black and gray water is purified under the noses of everyone who passes through the lobby. Pennington was rightfully suspicious and on the lookout for telltale odors. But to her delight, the waste-treatment system “didn’t look like one nor smell like one.” Sadly, our Metropolis/IIDA Smart Environments jury didn’t have the chance to experience firsthand the scent of the architecture. Like most design juries, they used beautiful photos, detailed descriptions, and plans in choosing the public-service facility, by ZGF, as one of the three winners this year.

The headquarters are “quiet—I mean, really quiet, even in the lofty, three-story spaces with 450 employees going about their day,” Pennington said after her visit. Though the judges appreciated the acoustic glass that was used to keep out noise (especially air traffic), the 2-D materials in front of them didn’t allow them to evaluate the building’s sound quality. And no one, not even savvy jurors, could grasp the role daylight plays in the general feeling of well-being. (In pictures, we see the photographer’s light working to dramatize what is there, not the complex, changing, real-world daylight of the Pacific Northwest.)

On her visit to the Roseville Branch Library (another Smart Environments winner), Deanne Erpelding, of Studio Hive, in nearby Minneapolis, noticed some details about the 21st-century public library. Its design, she says, has a “very retail feeling. Shopping baskets are everywhere. It’s also evident that media and technology are the new focus. Book stacks are not in clear eyesight; most are on the second level. The first items I saw were DVDs, computers.” When she arrived a bit after 5 p.m., “the library was bustling” with a “very diverse group of all ages, and most of them were on the computers.” In the children’s and teen areas, she saw video games being played on large, flat-screen TVs. Her overall impression of the winning design, by Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle? It felt like a great place to “hang out,” a kind of community meeting space we talk about so much these days.

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