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Comment - Judging Architecture

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How do you judge an architectural award when there’s no architecture on the shortlist? Jaffer Kolb asks

Architecture is becoming parasitic – a lesson hammered home when I recently judged the Architecture and Civil Engineering category for this year’s World Leadership Awards. The awards, sponsored by the not-for-profit World Leadership Forum, are divided into regional ‘city of the year’ categories (African, European, American, Asia-Pacific) with awards for subjects like education, culture, economy, and architecture. The breadth of the three projects we saw was disorientating – architecture, apparently, is a very elastic term.

The first was straightforward: a plan to mitigate the damage caused by rising sea levels on Victoria Island, Lagos, Nigeria. The project was a triumph of civil engineering: for a small budget engineers devised a semipermanent solution to make a shoreline to hold back the ocean from the adjacent city.

Next we were subjected to an overly slick presentation on the restoration of an observatory overlooking Los Angeles. The project was rigorous – in order to preserve the listed building and perform necessary upgrades, the team undertook meticulous work. But its value as a public project was tenuous, at best, compared to the ‘save the people’ attitude of the Lagos scheme.

Finally, three planners from Pune, India, presented a computer program developed for the city’s planning department which connects to CAD software to review massing and height of proposed projects automatically, increasing the number of applications processed per annum from 2,500 to 4,500, according to their reports. The connection to planning was obvious, but its relationship to architecture and civil engineering was far from clear.

The three projects represent the increasingly amorphous definition of architecture as a discipline. The Los Angeles observatory saw the upgrade of a private institution through some public funding – not a novel arrangement in the US – and speaks to the overlap of the tourism industry with local government. In Pune, the only ‘architecture’ on show was the programming. In the end it won; not because we were completely sold on it as an example of the category (Lagos fitted that bill best, but there was a somewhat disturbing arrangement where once the beach was rehabilitated, a developer would arrive to create a new resort development), but because it represented good leadership. We put on our corporate caps and went with the Bottom Line – that is, the project that produced the most dramatic (and beneficial) results. But software winning architecture awards… it’s a slippery slope.

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