ARCHITECTURE: Criticism of Design Awards. [LONG]

Your excellent criticism has been forwarded to DESIGN-L at PSUVM.

>Following are comments on the relevance, or lack of thereof, of
>architectural design awards to the real world, market processes and the
>well-being of the practice of architecture. Comments are welcome.

>Three of the most frequently cited purposes of design awards are to;

>1) generate publicity which can inform the public about the role of
>2) promote business for the firms recognized by the awards,
>3) and honor and gratify award winners.

>I am not aware of any survey that supports the assumption that design
>awards either bring in more business to winning firms, or raise the
>public's appreciation of architects. Before energy is expended in further
>design awards programs, some validation of these assumptions would
>seem prudent. Indeed, a convincing case can be made that awards
>programs have the counterproductive effect of misinforming the public
>and causing a net drain on the resources of architecture firms.

>"Grammies" and "Oscars" are examples of devices other industries use
>to promote their members' accomplishments. Might architects benefit
>from a similar strategy of well publicized awards. To the extent that
>awards are given for the elusive, nebulous and subjective quality of
>"design," there is a danger that the public will view architects as being
>similar to practitioners from the entertainment and fashion industries.
>While the latter people are certainly gifted and provide a useful service
>in devising amusement and recreation, the public probably views them
>as an unnecessary luxury rather than a cost-effective essential.

>For years, architects have yearned for the respect and compensation
>levels commensurate with their education, experience and talent, on a
>par with similarly endowed members of the legal and medical
>professions. Yet, public relations events such as awards programs that
>lead the people to view architects as dealing with the superficial and
>frivolous only undermine that goal of respectability.

>Publicity that focuses on the design portion the architect's many
>services tends to emphasize the similarity of architecture with fashion
>and entertainment. Such association devalues architecture by
>perpetuating the public's impression of architects as people who do
>nothing more than concoct trendy packaging for buildings. Design
>awards also lead the public to believe that a building has more value if
>it was designed by a "name brand" architect. Such "designer"
>buildings may be equated with their counterparts in the fashion industry;
>Pierre Cardin ties, Gucci handbags, Eddie Bauer limited edition Ford
>Broncos, etc. At its extreme, the preoccupation with name brand
>architecture can become a personality cult, where buildings are revered
>for their association with the designer, rather than for their intrinsic
>architectural value, if any.

>One of the other stated purposes of design awards, that of bringing in
>more business, needs to be questioned. Publicity can result in business
>leads, and a wall full of design awards can instill confidence in
>prospective clients, but surely design awards in themselves are not
>enough to land new commissions. As will be discussed below, clients
>who are led to a firm or are persuaded to hire an architect based on
>design awards are misguided because design awards are not good
>indicators of the quality of service clients can expect from an
>architectural firm.

>Also, design awards competitions are expensive to enter. Staff time, a
>professional photographer and presentation materials can easily cost
>thousands of dollars. With a low probability of winning, the investment
>becomes a long shot. Architects would do well to consider whether
>some other form of publicity would be more productive in meeting their
>marketing needs, especially considering the collateral unfavorable
>impressions such programs can produce among members of the public.


>Awards for design are often arbitrary, as design quality is subjective.
>Award criteria are susceptible to fashion trends, the structure of awards
>programs favors large firms and the selection of winning designs is
>based on superficial evidence.

>1. The most indicting criticism of current practices in design
> awards is that the graphic presentation is so crucial. Top quality
> photography is essential to even be considered in the running for
> a design award. It is well known that a masterful photographer
> can make even a mediocre building look outstanding by careful
> composition, manipulating perspective, combining multiple
> exposures, effectively framing scenes, staging entourage, using
> filters and darkroom processes to cause color shifting, amplifying
> contrast, and by using computer enhancement. Conversely, even
> outstanding architecture will not be given a second look by the
> jury if photographed by an amateur or by a professional who
> lacks a feel for architectural photography.

> That a submission could be recognized with an award based on
> such limited and manipulatable factors as its graphic presentation
> points to the main weakness of design awards -- their
> superficiality. Design awards ignore important, even crucial
> questions as, "Does the design meet the program objectives?"
> "Do the building users, owners and neighbors find the design
> functional and satisfying?", "Was the project administered
> effectively, on time and within budget?" "Did the owner get
> what he/she asked for, wanted, needed?" By not addressing
> these questions, design awards run the risk of encouraging some
> architectural firms to design projects with the objective of
> impressing awards jurors and publishers rather than benefiting
> their clients and occupants.

>2. Another problem with design awards is that they do not
> accurately represent the highest achievement of the industry.
> Juries are vulnerable to going rogue, to imposing their agenda on
> the awards process based on some particular polemical position
> of one or two persuasive jurors.

> Also, projects submitted are not representative of the range of
> work being done. The submissions are self-selected; firms
> choose whether to participate, based on their resources,
> marketing strategy, and time available. Although the cost of
> preparing a submission is high, it is relatively fixed, so that it
> would represent a relatively small proportion of a large firm's
> marketing expense, but a very high proportion of a small firm's
> budget. This condition favors submissions by large firms, even
> though the cutting edge work may be coming mostly from
> smaller, younger firms. There may also be certain building
> types that are more award-worthy, such as retail, residential and
> corporate projects where strong, quirky or glitzy themes can be
> explored. Often these projects are without serious budget
> restrictions.

> On the other hand, some of the projects requiring the most
> creativity, imagination and resourcefulness go un-submitted
> because they are not sexy or because getting eye-catching
> photographs is not possible. Remodeling projects come to mind,
> especially where the remodelling occurs in spaces too tight to
> get good photographs. Elegant solutions to projects with
> challenging programs, limited budgets, space, or time, with
> intricate circulation, or complex infrastructure requirements
> ordinarily will not be recognized with a design award.

>Finally, design awards are not good indicators of the capability of an
>architectural firm to do good architecture. Architecture is more than the
>outer shell of a building captured in one glorious instant in a staged
>photograph or slick rendering. How many projects that have received
>design awards were involved in law suits, lost the owner money because
>of cost or time over-runs, have become a maintenance nightmare for
>facility managers, or expose the users to inconvenience, discomfort or

>I must also dispute the idea that design awards bring in new business.
>If they do, they shouldn't. Most owners are sophisticated enough to
>know that a firm's history of design awards has little relevance to the
>next client's project. The receipt of an award is not an indicator that a
>firm will perform well in the future. First, because of the long lead
>time between the design of a building and its submission for an award,
>the design team responsible for the project may very well be dispersed.
>It is as much a consequence of the unique chemistry of personalities
>among design team members as anything else that leads to exceptional
>design solutions. Internal firm personnel shuffling and normal
>employee turnover will change the make-up of each design team. In
>large firms, the principle in charge of an award-winning project may not
>be in charge of the next project of a similar type. For that matter,
>unless a client wants the same building that was awarded, he/she cannot
>depend on receiving a similar level of inspiration and imagination.
>What won an award for one building may not apply for another building
>in a different location, built during a different economy, by a different
>contractor, for a different owner.

>Design awards cannot describe the achievements of firms, only of the
>individuals of the design team. Because of the fluid nature of staffing
>in architectural offices, it is the design team, not the firm, that should
>properly receive the recognition for outstanding work. Team members
>include the owner and the contractor as well as all staff and consultants
>who made significant contributions to the design of the project.
>Awarding prizes to firms is as inconsistent as awarding Oscars to movie
>studios rather than actors, directors, camera operators, editors, or
>awarding Olympic medals to nations rather than to individual athletes.
>Rather than a firm's stating in its brochures that it has won 11 design
>awards, it might say it has 26 staff members that have received design


>Out of the above comments and observations come several suggestions
>for governing design awards, if design awards are to be continued at all.

>1. Create awards categories that encourage diverse entries and
> recognize various aspects of practice, such as categories could
> include,

> large, medium and small firms
> low, medium and large budget projects
> building type
> project type, such as historic preservation, new
> construction, remodelling, additions
> firm age, size and ethnic, women owned status
> phase of service, such as programming, administration,
> observation, etc.
> creative solutions to unusual challenges, difficult
> conditions, code restrictions, phasing
> on-time, on-budget solutions
> client rapport and post-occupancy satisfaction
> pro-bono and community service
> graphic presentation and architectural photography
> best war story and its successful resolution

> The combinations and permutations of the above categories
> would assure a multiplicity of awards which would spread the
> recognition for good work among a greater number of recipients,
> would provide more meaningful areas of attention than just
> pretty pictures, and would keep juries focussed on significant
> issues. The large number of awards would result in more
> "winners," as opposed to present design award practices, where
> there are more "losers."

>2. All awards (except the Firm Award) should be given directly to,
> or at least individually recognize, the team members who made
> significant contributions to the project. Such individuals should
> be able to transport such recognition to other jobs or clients,
> rather than fixing the recognition on the firm.

>3. Submissions should not be limited to self-selected entries.
> Projects could be nominated by awards committee members, the
> public, contractors, critics and code officials. A review
> committee could scout projects, using building permit data for
> leads.

>4. Juries should make their decisions based upon more than graphic
> presentations alone. Some of the additional mechanisms could
> include;

> Interviews with users, owners, contractors, code officials
> Site visits to get the feel and experience the context of
> the project

> Essay accounts of the history, challenges and politics of
> the project
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