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And the winner is … well it depends

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Awards, awards, awards… What’s the point? asks Rory Olcayto

Awards. Pah. Who cares, huh? They don’t mean anything … unless you win them of course. But seriously, what is the point?

I ask, because, well, it’s Stirling Prize time. And last week, our sister brand the annual World Architecture Festival (WAF), held in Singapore, named its world building of the year, as well as a number of category winners. Earlier this week, I attended the BCO (British Council for Offices) Awards for workplace design and the Building Construction Industry Awards too, highlighting the best projects by the best delivery teams. And just a few weeks ago I was in Copenhagen for the Philips Liveable City Awards (which celebrate the best in urban lighting design). AJ’s own Retrofit Awards were held in the past month as well. Awards, awards, awards… So, once again: what’s the point?

There are quite a few points. If you win, it’s all about peer recognition, great PR, new business and your mantelpiece. If you lose, it’s all about next year. Take O’Donnell + Tuomey’s An Gaeláras, which in 2010, didn’t cut the mustard with RIBA’s visiting jurors and failed to land an RIBA award. Yet one year later, it nabbed one and found its way on to the Stirling Prize shortlist.

Awards are important - they really do mean something.  They represent an industry, or a profession, calibrating its output as reasonably as it can. Yes, sometimes the best projects don’t win, but rarely do they miss out on being shortlisted.

Awards, most often these days, are described as celebrating excellence. That’s mostly true (although ‘excellence’ can mean many things), but it’s not the only factor at play. And sometimes, if there’s good reason, it’s not even in the mix. I was a judge at WAF last week, and one category I was evaluating, Display, saw three projects competing: a modern art gallery in South Korea, a botanic garden in New Zealand, and an office project also in New Zealand. The first two were good - well put together, slick and accomplished. The last one, however, was less slick, less well put together, but according to our jury, the most deserving of the award.

The Kaitaka, or ‘The Cloak’, by Fearon Hay Architects, is a small office unit on a corner site of an airport business park, with a rough-looking green roof - you know, one that resembles a coarse Scottish hillside rather than a prim English village lawn - and was draped in what appeared to be chainmail. It was more Mad Max than Mies Van der Rohe. It also looked like it might develop maintenance problems sooner rather than later. In other words, it looked risky.

Yet the architects, whose presentation focused on process, said something that impressed the jury, when we pressed them to show us an image of the finished scheme. ‘You remind us of our client,’ said partner Jeff Fearon. ‘When they asked us what the building was going to look like, we said we didn’t know either - we’ll see when its built!’

In an age where precise visualisations and risk management dominate the design and building process, it was a refreshing approach. And one worth acknowledging, given the end result was a success.

As for the Stirling Prize, I doubt any of the clients this year would settle for not knowing what their building was going to look like, so we can’t consider the shortlist in these terms. That’s a shame; James Stirling’s portfolio is practically defined by risk - every one of his great buildings flirts vigorously with failure. So jurors, if you’re stuck, ask yourself: which one would Jim pick? Let his spirit guide you.

rory.olcayto@emap.com Twitter: @roryolcayto

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