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Foster backlash masks real issues behind the People's Choice award


After a long reign as architecture's media darling, Norman Foster is being given a bruising by the national press. Reports that the mayoral candidates don't like the gla building came hot on the heels of tales of leaking at the Reichstag and the use of non-British stone at the British Museum. The latest craze is to cast aspersions on the legitimacy of Foster and Partners' modest victory at this year's Stirling prize ceremony, where the Reichstag picked up the People's Choice award for architecture. The winner is determined by an electronic poll which is, in theory, accessible to architects and non-architects alike. The story, which first appeared in Building Design and was swiftly picked up by Friday's Evening Standard and the Independent on Sunday, rests on the fact that Foster employees were e-mailed with instructions on how to vote.

Given that the Reichstag won the competition with just 60 votes, and that Foster employs some 400 staff, it doesn't seem out of the question that votes cast by members of the practice may have influenced the final result. But so what? The nature of an open vote is that the outcome is, in part, dependent on the ability of the parties involved to galvanise friends and relations into action. If the People's Choice award had attracted mass votes, griping about whether or not a few members of the Foster fraternity had returned their votes would be akin to complaining that a politician able to harness the support of an unusually large extended family has an unfair advantage in the political game.

If there is a story in the saga of the People's Choice award, it revolves around the embarrassment that in the era of lottery buildings and millennium landmarks and Glasgow 1999, a competition which invites the opinion of the public can be won on so few votes. Perhaps we should be asking whether the prize is being given appropriate publicity. Perhaps we should return, yet again, to the question of whether the profession as a whole is managing to communicate to the public. Or maybe we should accept the fact that the 'people' just aren't that interested, and that the award is fundamentally flawed.

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