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A good awards programme needs a good process, says Tony Chapman

RIBA Awards judging
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Tony Chapman, former RIBA head of awards, on the value of architectural accolades

At the heart of all awards there lies a misnomer: we talk of judging awards when we should perhaps describe the process as ‘jurying’ awards. Judges hand down judgments on the basis of received wisdom, codified as case law (and any lawyer will tell you case law is bad law because it is based only on what has gone before). Juries, on the other hand, deliver verdicts based on evidence presented to them by a series of witnesses.

Juries belong to the real world; they have day jobs and they sift the evidence in the light of their day-to-day experience. Judges sit in courtrooms and chambers; they know all the answers in advance.

Judging (let’s stick with conventional nomenclature) the best awards, which I believe the RIBA Awards are, involves going out into the world and seeing how buildings have turned out; how they work. We use not only our eyes but also our ears, listening to what the architects, clients and users tell us, and we check that against what we see and against our experience.

That is why all RIBA Awards juries are made up of architects who have done this before and are also award winners themselves; and of non-architects who have a keen if not a professional interest in architecture – and anyway their job is precisely not to be architects, but to see things from the users’ point of view.

So they know whereof they speak. But they do not know what the answers are going to be before they set out, they do not prejudge according to prejudice.

For many years I was a director at the BBC. But times were changing, there was a new man about to take over at the helm. His name was John Birt and he had come from ITV where he had invented a programme called Weekend World which turned the process of programme-making on its head.

RIBA Awards judging

RIBA Awards judging

Source: Nick Guttridge

Instead of researchers, reporters and directors working in the field finding out what the story really was, these people were sent out to prove a theorem dreamt up by programme executives who never left the office. It was one of the reasons I left the BBC. And when I came to the RIBA and started to ‘run’ the RIBA Awards I wanted to make sure we did not make the same mistake; that the system was fair and worked; that juries were composed of people who were prepared to set aside their prejudices and their taste buds.

I also made sure that they were given the right tools to do their job: broad criteria based on distilled wisdom, enough information about the brief and the architects’ response, and plans and sections. Photographs and elevations were unnecessary when it came to the visits – the buildings (together with their architects and clients) spoke for themselves.

The RIBA Awards have always begun at a local level, in the regions and nations; something praised by then culture secretary Chris Smith when he presented the second RIBA Stirling Prize in 1997. Over time the system has been rationalised as a pyramid of awards – regional, leading to national, leading to Stirling – with different juries at every stage. Like every good building it depends upon good foundations. The regional judges have to get it right or the Stirling winner might be wrong.

The regional judges have to get it right or the Stirling winner might be wrong

Like buildings, awards are delivered by human beings, so they cannot be perfect. Juries may not always get it right but then nor do the architects and clients leading the building tours. Fortunately, experienced juries can see beyond the badly run visit, the fact that it’s raining or too hot, beyond the client who has too much or too little to say, even beyond the fact that the photographs promised so much or so little. The visit is paramount and all RIBA Award-winning buildings have been visited, which is not the case with most award schemes throughout the world.

Experiments are currently being conducted with replacing court judges with computers – really. Prosecutors will be able to feed in all the evidence, all the statutes, all the case law and out will pop the verdict: guilty, three years. Architecture may not be a matter of life and death, as Bill Shankly said of football, it’s more important than that. So let’s not go down that formulaic route of tick-boxes and scoring. Architecture is about humanity and judging or jurying must remain a human activity.

And like the law there are checks and balances and appeals processes. Members of the national jury panel (the Awards Group) are part of the shortlisting process to ensure schemes with national potential are visited. And regional jury chairs can be interrogated by the national panel as to why schemes did or did not receive awards. Checks are made that everything was done fairly and by the book, and that conflicts of interest were declared and appropriately handled. But again, in the end the visit is crucial.

Matters of taste work both ways. It is no more ‘right’ to say a building should get an award because it challenges conventional thinking, practice – taste, than it is to say it should not receive an award on such grounds. Quality is all, and the RIBA cannot and should not revise decisions on the basis of special pleading or because of public approval or disapprobation. And if the architects are still unhappy with the result they can enter their building again the following year and be assessed by entirely different people.

It is no more the job of a good awards programme to keep everyone happy by giving too many awards than it is to make people unhappy by giving too few. It must be down to the quality of the entered buildings.

If we get the process right, if the awards scheme is rigorous and respected and we concentrate on rewarding good architecture, then all the other benefits of awards will follow: public understanding of the value of good architecture, more commissions, maybe even a more sympathetic political environment. Now that would be a win.

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