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Debating the Value in Architectural Awards

‘And the runner-up is…’ David Rosenberg attends the latest in a series of debates at The Architecture Foundation

It is little wonder that the Pritzker family revels in their award’s reputation as the Nobel Prize of architecture. This $1m-prize promotes architect over architecture at a ritzy dinner, and with as much glamour rubbing off from recipient to donor, a better comparison might be the Oscars. But are other awards any better?

Like most architectural prizes, the Global Holcim Awards are also announced at a big dinner, and their so-called ambassador admits that the $2m prize is intended to exceed that of the already generous Pritzker. Dig deeper, however, and Holcim displays a rare openness to unglamorous unbuilt ideas. Furthermore, with a jury composed of architects and − unusually − non-architects alike, the dinner becomes less significant.

The Architecture Foundation’s second debate in its three-part series on the meta-industry of which it admits to being a part, focused on this contradictory nature of awards. As we learned in the first debate, they have two sides: their stated aim, to celebrate and reward excellence, and the ‘underlying motivations and benefits … (the) ulterior motives’. Neither Paul Finch nor Simon Allford held back in that regard: they both described a bloated, greedy, and self congratulating world, ‘more catering than cultural production’.

Sarah Ichioka’s most impassioned hope was stated upfront: to engage the public. But the debate barely touched on this issue, nor could it that evening; one senses that the usual suspects filled the cosy venue. Although it may have failed in public participation, the Architecture Foundation is to be applauded for the spectrum of speakers that it amassed. If they help to take the discussion to a wider audience then it will have been a worthwhile evening.

Where the national awards came across as insular, the international awards were mostly revealed by their representatives to be impressively expansive. The Aga Khan Award for Architecture and the Global Holcim Awards are notable examples. Both run on a different three-year cycle to all the others, and arguably touch a wider demographic, especially that elusive ‘public’. Each is rare in understanding ‘sustainability’ in a sense that transcends the fashion for all things green. Both publish works that exceed the life of the glossy brochures of most prize-giving events, and insist on transparency. Both disseminate knowledge to ‘common’ people.

Nothing is quite that simple, of course. Gift-giving is reciprocal, not altruistic, and like almost all awards, these bear their names with pride, and take pleasure in the association with the excellence they reward. Both the Aga Khan and Holcim throw a lot of money at their awards, and not just at the winners. Allford’s note that ‘judging is an award in itself’ highlighted the potential worst excesses of insularity. This was also the greatest problem with an event that could have been about how to widen the debate: there was a packed audience, but not much participation − and where was the public in all this?

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