Do Architecture Awards Matter?

Awards season is here: the Oscars, the Grammys, the Golden Globes.  Unlike the entertainment industry, architecture awards have a very nebulous timeframe, appearing in a consistently intermittent fashion, like rain showers in the Pacific Northwest. The AIA awards, the RIBA prizes, the Pritzker, the Driehaus.  As with weather events, some are widely celebrated, others just a short pause on the newsfeed scroll.


For most practicing architects, a prize has symbolic relevance, but a fleeting impact on day-to-day decision-making. There’s no shortage of reflection about specific winners and losers—there are parades of (often worthwhile) discussion in the architectural press when upper-echelon prizes are announced—but it seems we take the existence of such awards for granted. Is it time for the field to look up and ask: do architectural awards matter? And if so, could they do something to matter more?


Beginning with the Royal Institute of British Architect’s first Royal Gold Medal in 1848, as the number of practicing architects has increased, so too have the number of awards. Nearly every architectural organization, magazine, and website now hosts its own, to the point where the prevalence of trophies threatens our ability to pay attention. What architecture company that’s been open longer than a year doesn’t feature the phrase “an award-winning firm” in their bio? This oversaturated awards environment means that lower-tier awards lend less legitimacy to a firm’s reputation, but that is hardly cause to pronounce them useless. In the age of social media, practitioners may need to rely less on awards to get their name out—after all, most award ceremony attendees are competing architects.


So if not for reputation-building alone, how do we expect awards to function? Outside the field of architecture, there are two types of awards. Let’s call the first the “Oscars-type” and the second the “J.D. Power & Associates-type.” The Oscars-type rewards performances, performers, and technical achievements for the sake of excellence in art. The J.D. Power-type rewards products and companies based on data-driven performance and function, with a little design mixed in.


The landscape of architecture awards is rather amorphous—regional awards given by organizations with a very specific focus can feel like a different species from global awards with high-profile coverage—but a majority are more like the Oscars-type. They illustrate excellent examples of broad trends within the discipline, recognize significant cultural or artistic contributions, celebrate an architect’s achieved (or potential) body of work, and some even recognize non-architects’ contributions to the field. These type of awards can provide fuel for idealism: this inspiration is vital in a profession with an effort-to-reward ratio like architecture.


Were such hedonistic idealism our exclusive purpose, we might not need to ask more of the awards we give. But architecture is built on the necessity of function: buildings have obligations to their inhabitants, to the constraints of a budget, to care for the natural environment, and to protect against the elements of that environment. Innovative and dramatic forms often lauded by awards juries may create interior spaces incompatible with their desired function; or buildings that can’t hold themselves up. Consider that two of the AIA’s 25-Year Award recipients, the John Hancock building in Boston and the East Wing of the National Gallery in Washington D.C., both had massive (and massively expensive) exterior material failures. To award these buildings as standing “the test of time for 25-35 years” communicates that architects do not concern ourselves much beyond aesthetics. Further case in point: both buildings were designed by I.M. Pei, who has received both the AIA Gold Medal and the Pritzker.


Pei Cobb Freed & Partners’ East Wing of the National Gallery in Washington, DC, 1978 and the John Hancock Tower, Boston, 1976. Both received the AIA 25-Year Award.
Pei Cobb Freed & Partners’ East Wing of the National Gallery in Washington, DC, 1978 and the John Hancock Tower, Boston, 1976. Both received the AIA 25-Year Award.


I’m not suggesting that prize ceremonies are the place to learn construction detailing best practices. (Imagine the challenge of writing a stirring acceptance speech for “Best Waterproofing.”) Unlike consumer products, most buildings are one-offs, so a full-scale J.D. Power award system wouldn’t be worth much to consumers. But prize-winning buildings should exemplify more than just aesthetics. Winning buildings often become beacons for the field, and including more explicit criteria for successful function and responsible engineering might make for more worthwhile precedent to be broadcast and discussed. Architecture awards would matter more if they become more like a hybrid of the two awards typologies.


Suppose we challenged the capacity of awards to do more than just hand out a certificate. What could we do?


First: challenge most awards to incorporate a more broad set of questions and demand a data-driven component. Survey inhabitants or ask the clients to write a short essay about the process and final product. This would be especially interesting when evaluating an architect’s body of work for a lifetime achievement award. Don’t award any building that has been open for less than a certain period of time—look at its performance data over a one or two year period. See how well it’s aging. The AIA Committee on the Environment’s overhauled criteria for their annual awards presents a promising way to structure such a pursuit. Performance data will never be as sexy as a slick rendering, but glossy images are rarely realized as rendered and the legacy that lasts is the patina of daily use. Performance metrics could enhance a jury’s evaluation without dispelling that combination of subjectivity and objectivity that makes winning an award compelling.


Second: make the ceremonies themselves more relevant. Some awards ceremonies already do this well: the Driehaus prize, for example, includes a lecture and a panel discussion with the laureate and other respected designers and critics.   Other ceremonies may not have the luxury of so much time, but flashing a few images of the winners onto a small projector screen doesn’t provide salient take-aways for the audience. Ceremonies should be fun, and there’s no harm in using them as networking events, but reconsidering their standard format might provide untapped opportunities to impart knowledge, encourage discussion, and perhaps inspire a more diverse audience.


Third: ensure that awards serve more than just old white men in dark-rimmed glasses (caveat lector: your author is a white man with dark-rimmed glasses). Thanks to the efforts of groups like Equity by Design and Design Corps, architecture is beginning to publically explore questions of equity, both in terms of practitioners and the clients we serve. The selection of a winning project or firm is a statement of validation by the bestowing organization. They ought to carefully consider who is not being represented at the nominating table, both as jurors and entrants. If barriers to entry, whether actual or perceived, restrict nominations to only the most privileged, the winners won’t represent the broad field.  It’s remarkably unfortunate that it took until 2014 for Julia Morgan to be the first woman to win an AIA Gold Medal, and 2016 for Paul Revere Williams to be the first African-American winner, both of which were awarded posthumously. Prizes need not be given to underrepresented entries just for the sake of building equity, but we should constantly look to cast an adequately wide net.


ulia Morgan’s Merrill Hall at Asilomar, in Pacific Grove, CA, 1928 (photo by Wayne Hsieh via Flickr) and Paul Revere William’s Gertrude and Harry Kaye Building in Los Angeles, 1947.
ulia Morgan’s Merrill Hall at Asilomar, in Pacific Grove, CA, 1928 (photo by Wayne Hsieh via Flickr) and Paul Revere William’s Gertrude and Harry Kaye Building in Los Angeles, 1947.


Finally, it’s worth asking whether prizes affect our relevancy with the those working outside the world of design. Last fall there was a two article exchange between Architect magazine critic Aaron Betsky and the AIA’s then-senior director of media relations, Scott Frank, about the popularity of architectural awards in America based on media coverage.  Betsky anecdotally lamented our relative unpopularity while Frank pointed to evidence that awards media coverage does, in fact, reach a lot of Americans. By implication, both authors suggest that mainstream media exposure can be used as a metric for public relevance. Certainly media reach is important, but fretting about the amount of national broadcast attention misses a more fundamental question: what’s the role of our awards to the public? Could they be used as an innovative source of engagement? Absolutely. Some already do this. But to save our field’s dubious public relevancy from going under, many awards seem about as well-equipped to serve as a life raft as that wood board at the end of Titanic.


Whereas non-filmmakers have access to nearly all of the films considered for major film awards, most non-architects don’t have first-hand experience with any of the buildings and designers being considered for awards. Many casual movie-goers know what defines an award-winning movie, and yet the criteria used to define award-winning buildings are often so disconnected from the public’s experience of architecture that their only basis for reaction is “Yeah, that looks cool” or “Wow, architects really like awarding weird buildings!” We must make the value of the architecture discipline more accessible to the public both by teaching and learning from them, and perhaps awards could play a role in this effort. But there is plenty of other infrastructure—integrating design education into early education, better community feedback, more accessible design criticism in major publications, to name a few—that would likely have a more pronounced impact than getting more people to read about the latest prize winners.


That said, awards are well-suited to rope in some faction of the public because they feed humanity’s innate attraction to celebrity culture. We find some pleasure in the consensus veneration of an individual because we all aspire (even if we’d never admit it) to be considered uniquely necessary and extraordinary. If someone becomes deeply interested in architecture via the celebrity of an award-winning designer, are we going to say this is an illegitimate interest?  Celebrity can be dangerous for a field that necessitates intense collaboration and often creates the best work when individual egos step back. (Reminding aspiring designers that the hero architect is only a reality in Ayn Rand novels has become a somewhat necessary cliche in architecture school.)  But this same dilemma faces any field that involves teamwork and still gives out individual awards—inevitably there will be over-hyped winners and under-celebrated losers and no amount of restructuring will fix that.


Likewise, no matter how much we change a prize’s structure or scope, we can’t rely exclusively (or even regularly) on them to determine what are and aren’t good buildings, nor who are or aren’t good architects. Buildings must do more than make you feel something—good architecture must function well, and really good architecture must function well and benefit the culture of its place. Such cultural contributions don’t always feature qualities that tantalize juries, but they don’t need to. Our profession is more permanent, both in grand and mundane ways, than performance art. Awards do carry weight, and there’s room to improve their impact, but they matter only as one lens to evaluate the field, just as an Academy Award is only one way to find a good movie.


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