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Awards and competitions show that talent will out

Paul Finch
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As shortlisting takes place for this year’s World Architecture Festival Awards, Paul Finch’s heart is gladdened by a wonderful range of projects and acts of imagination

The awards season is in full flow. Some, like the RIBA and AJ100 Awards are already announced, while others are now being judged, for example the British Construction Industry Awards and the early stages of the World Architecture Festival (WAF) Awards, which has plenty of UK entries this year.

To the outside world, the idea of architectural awards is often mocked as the self-interested handing-out of gongs one to another. In my experience that is far from being the case. Anyone who has served time on the RIBA Awards Group, for example, will know that, if you want a really critical audience for any particular project, get in a gang of architects.

Even though the institute has for many years used lay assessors as part of its judging process, this tends to get overlooked in the event of any sort of controversy. Happily, the sensible rule that allows disappointed entrants to reapply the following year often, though not always, takes the sting out of the situation.

if you want a really critical audience for any particular project, get in a gang of architects

As ever, the success of any awards scheme is heavily dependent on judging procedures, and the quality of the judges involved. Awards are not the same as selection panels, where panellists may well have been chosen for their architectural attitudes. By contrast, awards require judges to suspend their personal prejudices in favour of an acknowledgement of talent: ‘I would never have designed that building as it has been built, but I understand the skill that has gone into it.’

No names, no pack drill, but I have always been surprised (perhaps because I am not an architect), at how frequently cavalier dismissal of very competent design becomes the working method of those in the privileged position of judging the work of others. When it comes to the WAF Awards – our shortlist will be announced on 7 July – we try to err on the side of generosity, with slightly more than 50 per cent of entries shortlisted.

We have had an extraordinary number of entries this year (914), which a large shortlisting team had the pleasure of reviewing two weeks ago. For a couple of days, it was possible to forget about the horrors of Grenfell Tower, and instead review a wonderful range of projects and acts of imagination from across the world. WAF is unusual in the sense that shortlisted architects make presentations, to juries and delegates, at the festival (which takes place from 15 to 17 November in Berlin). These substitute for visits, because of the number and geographical variety of the shortlisted entries. The presentations are very often stronger than the visual material presented, because the architects can bring to life what is special about the client, the site, the brief and the inspiration.

Looking at boards 2

Looking at boards 2

What is fascinating is the range of different approaches to the same programmes, depending on geography, culture and architectural intelligence. It is always satisfying to see how much architects have in common – much more than what might divide them. And, when the WAF judges in Berlin get to work, they will be rewarding architecture which is of recognisable distinction, wherever it has come from and whoever it is by.

This raises the question of whether architects and architecture are properly transferable. Some think that, unless architects are deeply rooted in the culture of a region/country/city/site, they cannot produce fine work. Others point to many examples of how architectural skills, empathy and powers of analysis can be applied in any environment, irrespective of nationality or background. 

What award programmes have to do is reward merit in the round. I like the fact that WAF shortlisting is anonymous. If it’s good enough, it’s in – whatever the provenance.

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