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Architectural design awards

9 June 2017

Considering trophies, design narratives and the merits of architecture prizes

There was a feature on TV this week about the grotesque golf trophies that the unfortunate professional is forced to model in front of the cameras should he or she triumph on tour. These ranged in design from various enormous jewel-encrusted totems, to a porcelain tiger, to an unrecognisable cast of Nelson Mandela. Competitors presumably are prepared to go through this humiliation as long as they have the huge winner’s cheque secured away in their pocket.

One of the outcomes of completing a building, or buildings, is that it can be put forward for an award. These trophies also come in many shapes and sizes, but are generally more tasteful than the golfing versions: a simple glass shard for an RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) Award; a sculptural twist of steel for a RICS (Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors) Award; a modest glass triangle for a Civic Trust Award, or an acrylic cube for a LEAF (Leading European Architects‘ Forum) Award. Sadly, there are no cheques to accompany these. In fact, the awards process is quite costly with entry fees to start the process off, then dinners in far-off places for the fortunate shortlisted teams.

However, architectural awards aren’t about reward in the tangible sense, save perhaps for some welcome publicity, peer recognition and staff morale. They are an opportunity for the designers, their clients and the wider design team to celebrate the conclusion of a project. Getting a building built can be a long journey, even for a modest scheme. A private house can easily take two or three years and a typical school or university faculty four to five. Imagine the timeline of a project like the Olympics or Crossrail. By the end, the people involved have either bonded forever – or fallen out horribly.

The RIBA Awards system has a strict hierarchy. It begins with a regional award, then these successful projects are nominated for a national award, then onto potential shortlisting for the coveted Stirling Prize and the accompanying smaller national prizes. One of the joys of being on the jury for these awards is the visits, often to private or inaccessible places. Having chaired two jury panels in recent years, I can say it is a privilege to witness first hand the best of these projects, particularly if they are normally out of bounds to the public. The jury is deliberately made up of professionals with different disciplines and backgrounds, but more often than not consensus is reached. This is because what ultimately matters in a successful building is not style, material, size, or the money thrown at it, but rather what it does to the senses. The experience is the unifier.

There is a cynical industry out there which carries out the same enhancements to pictures of buildings as is done to supermodels.

There is a cynical industry out there which carries out the same enhancements to pictures of buildings as is done to supermodels. Often, therefore, a visit to a building can be a disappointment by not living up to the promise of the photographs or the programme. However, conversely, one can be overwhelmed by the magic of coming across something unexpected, as I did not so long ago in Freiburg. An unassuming – arguably rather ugly – lump of concrete proved to hold one of the most deliciously atmospheric interior spaces designed by the German practice Kister Scheithauer Gross Architects. Maria-Magdalena Church holds two churches (Doppelkirche), one protestant and one catholic, which are united in one building and can be combined into one single ecumenical church through the opening of huge concrete walls. For those who pass it without entering, it is truly a lost experience.

So, awards are a pleasure to receive and put on the shelf, but buildings are there to be enjoyed and experienced by a wider audience. With understanding of the concept, or what we call the design narrative, comes better appreciation of the intentions. Go inside one you think awful on the outside, or look with fresh eyes at the exterior of the one you detest working in. You may be surprised.

Article originally published on the Property Chronicle.

Richard is a co-founder of Design Engine and, with his fellow directors, is responsible for the design direction of the practice.