Architecture, Awards and Stories

Architecture awards are an important part of the culture and it's therefore important to consider what they're for and who they're for.

Awards are a story.

When setting up the criteria for judging awards it’s important to consider what the story is you want to be telling. When choosing and briefing the judges it’s equally important to understand their world views and the stories they’re likely to tell or retell through their selections. Consider for example the story Hollywood has been telling the industry and the world at large when (formerly) selecting largely white, often male, nominees and therefore winners. #OscarsSoWhite: Hollywood is not a diverse, equitable or inclusive industry.

Let’s consider architecture awards. I was gratified to read that Lacaton Vassal had won the 2021 Pritzker Prize. The story we could take away from this is that building less and less flashy is of value and to be commended. That a women has also once again been awarded also helps to continue to change a story around the Pritzkers, that only male architects are worthy.

Given the changing landscape of architecture awards it’s fair to ask, What is the story they’re telling?

Better still, asking with intention…

What is the story we want architecture awards to be telling?

For annual architecture awards, the story is exclusively about a finished product, a building, the “work of architecture”. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, but for the most part these awards are largely for architects by architects, not so much for the public at large. There’s an exclusivity here. Again, not necessarily a bad thing if that’s what you’re going for. It’s valuable and important to acknowledge the realisation of high quality architecture, but mostly only appreciated by architects. They’re the main audience for this story, deliberately or otherwise.

Audience is important. Who is the intended audience for the awards and what is the story the organisers of the awards want to be telling their audience? Culture is a central consideration here. World views are shaped by the culture that people belong to. This may be broader societal culture and in this case professional culture. Culture is important because values are shaped by the culture.

When architecture awards are announced the defining criteria typically is building typology. The award for best public building, best house and so on. Whilst awards are often accompanied by a Jury Citation, the predominant communication is through image alone. In the absence of data new stories are written. Stories written based on the culture someone belongs to. The question then is, what are the criteria considered important by the different cultures? It’s likely that the criteria applied by the profession in consideration of a work of Architecture is unlikely to be the same as that applied by the layperson, the general public. There may be a misalignment in values here. This is an important consideration if values need to be aligned in order for the story to be understood in the way in which it was intended.

Considering for a moment the oft cited (but not exclusive) reason for architecture awards is to illustrate the profession’s value. Do architecture awards achieve this? Is this the story being told and understood?

I posit that in order to demonstrate the profession’s value and the value of architecture, the focus of awards needs to be on more than the finish product, the physical outcome, photographs. Process is important, the clients and their needs, starting points, environmental impact, the project constraints and so on. Of course many of these things may have been taken into account, but by and large they are not part of the story being told. It’s why I’m gratified to see Lacaton Vassal being acknowledged, the story they and others tell about their work (less so the awards) is so much more than a final work of architecture.

The challenge here is to be intentional. Intentional about the story being told by the awards and how it is being told. It needs to start with that, not with a final work of award winning architecture.

Picture by RODNAE Productions on Pexels

Hi! I’m Michael

I’m an architect and coach. I help architects rethink their practice and support them as they uncover better ways to work. I’ve worked in architecture for over 25 years, and I ran my own practice for 14 years. I understand architectural practice from the inside out. Fun Fact: my NSW architect’s registration is #10 007 and I have a license to skill.

I believe improving practice takes asking hard questions and deep listening.

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