Do Awards tell us what good architecture is?

The 2013 architecture Awards season is getting into full swing across the nation. It's timely to ask if Awards tell us much about what good architecture is or if they're just about appearances

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

National centre for synchrotron science, designed by Bates Smart. Finalist in Commercial Architecture category

This week the Victorian chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects (AIA) announced its shortlisted 2013 entrants for its annual Architecture Awards (I looked at the 2011 award winners before). The term shortlist seems exaggerated – there’re a whopping 112 finalists in 13 categories.

I confess the overall logic behind the Award categories eludes me. The Public Architecture and Commercial Architecture categories seem to be based on markets; the three Residential categories on end-use; and the Interiors category hints at a spatial principle.

The other categories variously appear to be based on function, time and geography. There’s even a seeming leftover called the Small Projects category, suggesting size is in there too! Presumably it all makes obvious good sense to the organisers and is consistent with how architects view their business.

One aspect I’m disappointed about is the continuing use of a distinct Sustainable Architecture category. It’s 2013 and sustainability has been around for a long time now – at the national level, the AIA has had a sustainability Award under various names since 1993.

Sustainability needs to be treated as an integral and normal part of architecture, not something special and separate. I know almost all architects are very committed to sustainability but this is the wrong approach. There isn’t a ‘Buildings that stand up’ category or a ‘Buildings that keep out the weather’ category and nor should there be – that’s just what architecture is. It’s time to regularise sustainability and make it a given, not an exception.

The Awards are the state Chapter’s premier event. They should tell us a lot about what architecture is and what it means to the profession. In particular they should tell us what exemplary architecture is.

The reality however is different – they only provide a partial explanation of what good architecture is.

The judges (who’re all architects) listen to a short presentation from each entrant and briefly visit each building. Their primary source of information is their eyes and what the architect – hardly an independent source – tells them.

They don’t know much about how the design worked financially or whether it came in on program. The AIA notifies clients of site visits, but doesn’t actively seek information from them or their independent participation.

And because the buildings are all new, no one knows if the ultimate users – the residents, office workers, patients, students, and so on – will be happy or will discover major flaws with the design over time.

Even if the judges rigorously evaluated the projected operating and maintenance costs of a building (and I doubt they do), no one knows if it’ll live up to the claims made on its behalf by the architect or if there’ll be some awful surprises down the track.

Then the judges have to compare the relative merits of what in some categories are plainly disparate buildings. In the Commercial Architecture category, for example, the Bar di Stasio has to be compared against the National Centre for Synchrotron Science.

What all this means is appearances, both literal and metaphorical, loom large in the judging of Awards winners. Qualities like value and functional performance that seem to matter a lot in other aspects of life and business take a back seat, especially for larger projects. That’s a pity, because a good building – an Award-winning building – should above all else satisfy and delight those who use it.

Thus Awards only provide a partial understanding of what good architecture is. That’s understandable because they have inherent problems. In particular it would be costly to require more extensive information from entrants and have it rigorously assessed by an independent ‘auditor’.

Moreover these are new buildings. The experience of users is short-term and in some cases they might not even have moved in. In any event collecting objective data on their experiences would be time consuming and costly.

Awards obviously have a lot of value for architects, they seem to love them. But what they say – what they can say – about the overall excellence of the architectural process is really quite limited. It’d be less of a problem with detached houses because they’re relatively small and simple, but for the larger part of the profession’s work they only tell part of the story.

Awards aren’t likely to disappear but I expect there’s some scope to tighten up and bring more rigour to both the definition of categories and the judging process. The AIA should be prepared to shell out for a measure of independent data collection and analysis. It should also be more reflective and up-front about what the Awards actually measure.

There could also be value in requiring buildings to operate for a minimum period – say a year – before they can be considered for an Award. That would provide some scope for users to gain experience and provide feedback. Clients should also be invited to participate actively in the evaluation process.

The best way of identifying genuine examples of architectural merit has little to do with Awards as they’re currently structured i.e. by annual competition. I propose universities should be pushed hard by the AIA to do more research on how well buildings perform across a range of functional and financial indicators. Universities have the scope to look over a long time horizon and the ability to collect objective information from owners and users.

It amazes me – in fact it staggers me – that there doesn’t appear to be any rigorous academic research into how well architects deliver. If the architecture schools won’t do it or lack the appropriate research skills, it should be taken on by a social science department.

I expect those 112 shortlisted entrants are all fine buildings when looked at through the current Awards lens. My key issue is that the awards process is based on a limited definition of what makes good architecture.


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7 thoughts on “Do Awards tell us what good architecture is?

  1. Dudley Horscroft

    Sorry, should read “Books that win book prizes …” and “you may think up some other …” “prize winning …”

    Didn’t check read it very well, did I?

  2. Dudley Horscroft

    Perhaps Architecture Awards are like Book Awards. Books that with book prizes seem to be dull and of little interest. Books should be informative, educational or for relaxation (you may think up so other uses – door stops, perhaps) but so many prize wining books seem not to fit in my preferred categories.

    A bit like the prize winning buildings (Cameron Offices)for Statistics that had flat roofs. I understand that the sealing membrane had to be kept damp to keep it waterproof, and was covered with a hefty layer of gravel to keep it in place. Come budget cuts and someone decided to save money on water, so it dried, cracked, and then let water in. Not good for a store of documents. Now partly knocked down. (Or the Benjamin Offices, shaped like diamonds, very awkward to do anything with!)

  3. Daniel Bowen

    Perhaps there *should* be a ‘Buildings that keep out the weather’ category, given projects like the North Melbourne Station redevelopment win awards, yet don’t keep out the weather.

  4. Alan Davies

    melburnite #3:

    Certainly not advocating Awards in specific categories like “client satisfaction”!!! No, I’m arguing that considerations like user satisfaction should be part of the assessment process, even using existing categories. The use of a building is still its key justification (otherwise it would be sculpture). Good architecture achieves excellence in use and does it in a way that looks and feels good. Either one by itself doesn’t amount to much.

  5. melburnite

    Perhaps Alan, you are expecting too much of architects ? People become architects because they love the look and feel of buildings, and that’s what’s being judged, mostly.

    While I believe that judging panels do include some assessment of client satisfaction (they have usually been finished at least for a while), and by extension its functionality, cost effectiveness etc. it is really mostly about an aesthetic appreciation. Its about architecture as an art.

    Of course buildings are more than art, and architects have to try to serve practical ends as well as aesthetic ones, but the sort of assessments you are talking about can only be done after a good period of time, and dont sound very exiting – ‘best value for money ‘, or ‘highest client satisfaction’, ‘most low maintenance’ – worthy, but not the sort of thing someone who sees themselves as an artist would covet.

    Actually maybe it would be a useful exercise, so that the big firms who do the most commercially driven work, which is usually bland, could get some awards too !

  6. Rod Louey-Gung

    Whilst I agree with the comments of this article, I would like to add an additional component – that of function and fitness for purpose. Our important public buildings are about communication – Courtrooms, parliamentary chambers, school rooms, university lecture theatres are about our need to communicate, to decide on the future of a life, to debate, to teach. Yet many of these buildings are so often hamstrung by the vanity of the architect into spaces that are exceptionally difficult to communicate in.
    Is this good architecture? Do these buildings, which are often put up for awards, actually meet the criteria of good design?

  7. hk

    The statement,”If the architecture schools won’t do it or lack the appropriate research skills, it should be taken on by a social science department” is strongly supported by my colleagues.

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