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Architectural awards are never likely to avoid controversy

Paul Finch
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The House for Essex may have failed win an RIBA regional award, but the judging process is robust, says Paul Finch

The fuss over the house designed by Grayson Perry and FAT, the latest in a long line of controversies surrounding RIBA Award decisions, might almost be seen as part of the process.

I spent a decade as a member of the institute’s awards group, representing the AJ. For most of that period this magazine was the chief sponsor of the awards programme in general and the Stirling Prize in particular – contributing well over half a million pounds to Portland Place in the process.

Being relatively thick-skinned, I didn’t feel too put out at being given my marching orders (along with other longstanding members of the group), although a note of thanks from the chief executive wouldn’t have gone amiss. None was forthcoming, possibly as a result of what might be described as unconsidered bad manners.

Over that decade, it was virtually inevitable that the rules and processes of the awards would change from year to year. In the case of the Perry/FAT house, the regional panel decided not to make an award; though it ought to be possible for the national panel to add a building to the awards list (while not to overrule a decision to make an award). That was the position we had come to in the last year I served on the panel, and it made sense.

For one thing, the national panel has sight of all the award buildings and entries and can therefore come to a balanced judgement about overall quality. For another, it may be that a particular regional panel has a prejudice about certain sorts of architecture, which can be mitigated by a broader group.

There have been plenty of cases where a supervising eye has worked well. Two examples spring to mind: first Ian Simpson’s excellent residential tower at No 1 Deansgate, which for some reason had been overlooked; and second John Simpson’s Queen’s Gallery, which was most certainly rejected by the regional panel because it didn’t like Classicism. Both were rightly promoted by the national group.

It was always interesting to note the attitudes of architects to the work of others. The panel members I most admired were those who would acknowledge a skilful piece of architecture as being worthy of an award, even if it was quite clearly not something they particularly liked. At the other end of the spectrum were those whose reactions were entirely predictable depending on the name on the entry.

I don’t suppose FAT’s former partners or Grayson Perry are losing much sleep over their rejection

Prejudice, probably subconscious, was evident in respect of scale and building type. Gushing over small, beautifully formed projects was frequently the order of the day, whereas large, ambitious and complex buildings attracted more criticism because there was more to shoot at. This was particularly true of commercial buildings, where awards would often be made through gritted teeth. And of course any public cultural building outgunned everything else.

The Stirling Prize is, in my experience, fairly judged (I did it twice). However, it is a fact that there have been some perverse outcomes, and winning architects have frequently entered much better buildings previously. It is amusing to compile a list of buildings that could have won; it looks stronger than the list of those that did.

Having said all this, one should remember that the overall RIBA Awards programme is pretty robust and, by allowing entrants to reapply if they fail first time round, it acknowledges that judging is not infallible. I don’t suppose FAT’s former partners or Grayson Perry are losing much sleep over their rejection, and it would be entirely in the spirit of the practice to attach a lead plaque to the house, announcing: ‘This did not receive an RIBA Award in 2016.’

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