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Democratic polls must use democratic methods

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letters

The final line of your editorial (aj 2.12.99) says it all: the People's Choice award is fundamentally flawed, but, together with its fellow riba awards, perhaps more seriously so than the analysis suggests.

Presuming the whole point of the People's Choice award is to register popular acclaim among the broadest possible audience, one would expect it to follow the most basic rules of democracy, ie one person one vote, a level playing field for candidates, and - hopefully - a respectable percentage response from the electorate. Unfortunately this ill thought- out prize failed these simplest of tests and produced the sort of corrupt voting pattern not seen in Britain since the eighteenth century. It would be a good start towards salvaging the profession's reputation if this year's cheque were to be donated to an appropriate charity.

That the website address for the People's Choice award was poorly advertised must have been immediately evident to the riba from the unbelievably small response. Quite why it did not then occur to them to question why one building - that few people among the general UK public were likely to have seen - should run away with the prize remains a mystery. It is to the riba's eternal discredit that they did not at that stage choose to withhold the award, pending a rethink and re-presentation in time for next year.

In this particular contest, voters were required to have access to a computer, be internet-literate, and be interested enough in contemporary architecture to bother to find the website address - still not quite the universal condition of the great British public, as the riba seems to imagine. A more successful and verifiable response might have come from a television programme giving equal status to all candidates and with a telephone poll producing the revenue to pay for it.

The most important question of all remains, however, what is this particular award actually intended to achieve? As a mechanism for broadening understanding of contemporary architecture it surely requires some educational dimension. Otherwise it can only represent the worst kind of dumbing- down, offering a cash prize for being popular or superficially attractive rather than for any objectively definable architectural qualities.

In the end it would surely be better to do away with all such extraneous awards and concentrate resources instead on one scheme, and properly remunerating the highest-quality assessors available. Their task (which should be regarded as a career distinction) must be to clearly define and justify the criteria for selecting the best architecture of the year. Until we get the rules right we are unlikely to see the kind of results we can all feel inspired by and, as a profession, be proud of.

Peter Wilson, director,

Manifesto, Edinburgh

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