WAF Newsletter - Awards and prizes should be about excellence not messages - March 2020

Awards and prizes should be about excellence, not messages

Paul Finch, 11 March 2020

The debate over gender and ethnic representation in respect of architectural awards and prizes is understandable, but is far from being a simple matter, writes Paul Finch.

That is because there are many people who do not believe that awards should be made on merit, but because they send the right ‘message’, that message being what the proponents say it should be.

Alfred Hitchcock, on being asked about the message one of his films was sending, responded that there was none – and that messages were best left to Western Union. Abandon that idea and you run into trouble. In the world of film, it results in travesties such as ET, arguably the best children’s film of all time, missing out on the Oscar in favour of Ghandi (equals peace and love), including Ben Kingsley’s ‘blackface’ performance as the Indian leader.

Unfortunately, the world of architecture has become infected by the message bug. Look at the wailing and gnashing of teeth when, in 2018, the Bloomberg headquarters won the RIBA Stirling Prize. Why? Because people who believe in messages rather than design immediately claimed that the RIBA must be supporting international capitalism, unbridled resource use which could not possibly represent sustainability, and big international practices rather than small boutique ones (generally incapable of undertaking large sophisticated challenges).

Bloomberg European Headquarters by Foster + Partners for Bloomberg

By contrast, happiness all round when the minimalist Hastings Pier intervention won the big prize the previous year: you could see all those small practices thinking (mostly mistakenly) that they could have done something like that. Ditto the Norwich municipal housing scheme, impeccably low-carbon, which won the Stirling in 2019. Plenty of architects have told me they did not think this scheme should have won the prize, but would never dare say so in public, for fear of being branded as enemies of public housing provision.

Hastings Pier by dRMM Architects © Alex de Rijke and HPC & Goldsmith Street by Mikhail Riches with Cathy Hawley for Norwich City Council

Here is a question: if the Norwich project had been designed for a volume house-builder for private sale, would it have won the Stirling? The answer must be no, suggesting that what is supposed to be the prize for the most significant work of architecture each year has been distorted to suit the people who like messages. So Grimshaw’s brilliant London Bridge Station, improving millions of passenger journeys every year and which won its WAF category, missed out on the Stirling.

London Bridge Station by Grimshaw © Paul Raftery

My biggest regret as a member of the RIBA Awards Group (for ten years) was not making more fuss about better architecture which didn’t make the Stirling shortlist in favour of lower-quality but ‘worthier’ projects. The failure to nominate Terminal 5 at Heathrow, by Rogers Stirk Harbour, or the Birmingham Selfridges department store, by Future Systems, still rankle. However, they lost out to projects regarded as more ‘appropriate’.

Terminal 5, Heathrow - London by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners

Selfridges Department Store, Birmingham by Future Systems

The moment you start arguing that a project should be premiated because it is by a small practice/woman/BAME/LBGTQ+ architect is simultaneously insulting to the ‘minority’ and destructive of the whole idea of architectural excellence, a discipline that can be discussed and assessed in its own terms.

This is not to say that there should not be awards for those minority groups – for example the awards for women architects supported by Architects’ Journal and Architectural Review, but they are parallel awards to the mainstream, not rivals.

On size of project, by the way, it is not true that a small project cannot beat a bigger one (with budgets to match). However, the moment you abandon judgement of architectural brilliance, delivered in response to a challenging brief, you are on thin ice. The only message any Stirling (or WAF) jury needs to send is: ‘We believe this was the finest piece of architecture we were privileged to see from the strongest possible shortlist of first-class buildings.’

Exactly the same is true of awards like the RIBA Gold Medal or the Pritzker Prize. I fear the announcement of winners now prompts bouts of ‘spot the virtue signal’, which of course dilutes the impact and reputation of the honour.

I hope these trends do not taint the WAF Awards programme; shortlisting is based on anonymous entries, which is helpful. Advice to judges is to assess the virtues of what they see in the presentations, not where the architects come from, or what the individual characteristics appear to be.

We have only, thus far, given one personal WAF award – to Norman Foster, for his contribution to architecture. The fact that he is a white, heterosexual male of a certain age is utterly irrelevant. What matters is what you have done, not who you are.

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