Geelong library and heritage centre by ARM Architecture (photo: John Gollings)
Shortlisted in the Public Architecture category of the 2016 Victorian Architecture Awards: Geelong library and heritage centre by ARM Architecture (photo: John Gollings)

The short list for the 2016 Victorian Architecture Awards was announced last week. There are 70 short-listed projects (culled from 198 entries) across fifteen categories.

So how will the shortlisted projects be assessed and the winners in each category decided? And what will they tell the rest of the world about the quality of contemporary architecture?

There’ll be juries comprised mostly or entirely of other architects and they’ll briefly visit each building and talk to the designers. But they won’t do much measuring of each architect’s claims about their project or how it actually works in practice.

Here are some measures you can be pretty confident won’t get much detailed attention in the judging process:

  • Cost – did the project come in on budget and on time?
  • Client satisfaction – is the client, the one who footed the bill, satisfied with the design and management of the project?
  • User satisfaction – are those who use the building – e.g. workers, residents, students, patients – satisfied with the design?
  • Public satisfaction – is the wider population happy with the design contribution the project makes to the public realm?
  • Accuracy – is the architect’s input to the overall project distinguished from the contribution made by others, especially the developer’s brief?
  • Truth – were the design claims made by the architect (e.g. sustainability, useability, operational costs) independently measured on the completed project?

Taking account of these sorts of considerations would of course present great practical difficulties for the industry. Few architects want their clients telling their peers about any missteps. And of course it could be quite expensive and time consuming to gather the information required to get an objective assessment.

So awards give only a partial understanding of what makes for outstanding architecture. When I looked at this issue in more detailback in 2013 I noted that (see Do Awards tell us what good architecture is?):

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.

As long as everyone understands that what awards say about the overall excellence of the architectural process is really quite limited they probably do no real harm. After all, as with any industry, architects have to engage in marketing too. And architects themselves certainly love them.

But understanding what makes for better buildings is very important. Since awards only do that in a limited way, universities should have major programs rigorously assessing how well particular buildings perform across a range of functional, financial and aesthetic indicators. It’s really extraordinary that they aren’t doing it already.