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How to give your design the best chance of winning an award

Paul Finch
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Great architecture may not even make it on to the shortlist if attention hasn’t been paid to its presentation, writes Paul Finch

Given the multitude of awards for various aspects of architectural production, and the amount of time and money spent on entering them, it is sometimes surprising that so little thought has gone into producing presentations that match the quality of the design work.

To win awards, whether national (like the AJ Architecture Awards), global (like the World Architecture Festival, during which this column was written) or type-specific (the AJ’s Retrofit Awards), there is an almost inevitable process of shortlisting, undertaken rapidly and without the benefit of either a conversation with the architect or a building visit. Those come later.

Kampung admiralty 17 0

Kampung admiralty 17 0

WAF World Building of the Year 2018: WOHA Architects’ Kampung Admiralty, Singapore

So how can architects do the best by their own projects when they enter awards?

From years of shortlisting and judging, I can offer some general rules of thumb. A good entry – whether it is a physical board or the supply of electronic information – will answer the following questions: What is it? Who is it for? Where is it? When was it built or when will it be finished? How has it been designed? and Why has it been designed this way?

None of these questions has any particular relationship to design quality. However, a failure to answer them may jeopardise the prospects of a well-designed scheme reaching the later stages of an awards programme.

Judges will simply move on to entries that are clear and unambiguous rather than spend ages trying to work out what a more obscure entry is about

Let us assume that the questions have been answered (including dimensional and materials information) and that the entry has indeed been well designed. Is that a guarantee of potential success? Unfortunately not. Just because a building has been well designed, it doesn’t mean the entry boards or choice of photography are equally successful.

One example of what not to do concerns the number of images used. There are often too many, as though the designer of the entry thinks that the more images used, the harder the design must be working. Unnecessary use of images can be accompanied by layouts that assume that using images in identical sizes is somehow appropriate. It is usually the other way round: the greater the variation in scale, the stronger the appearance. 

Same-scale drawings can be an exception to this, but care needs to be taken not to overload an entry with replica floor plans. The power of exploded drawings explaining how a building works should not be underestimated, but whether used or not, the key thing is that drawings and images illuminate the design strategy rather than obscuring it. It is not a bad idea to place simple captions underneath images to avoid ambiguity. Of course the architect knows exactly how everything works and how everything is related – but will it be clear to the judges? 

Judges faced with sometimes huge numbers of entries will, alas, sometimes simply move on to entries that are clear and unambiguous rather than spend ages trying to work out what a more obscure entry is about. This is a fact of life, so better to focus on what makes a successful presentation.

It is important that the project architect or director is involved with the entry’s design, knowing more about it than any third party possibly can. If they cannot, for reasons of time, design the boards themselves, they should at least sign them off, ensuring the entry does the architecture justice. As with a successful building, a successful award entry will be an example of order, clarity, balance and a successful combination of visual and written material. Reading this I realise that it might sound boring, so let me emphasise that a successful entry will grab the judges’ attention, whether its subject is spectacular or a still small voice of calm.

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Readers' comments (2)

  • joseph b fitzgerald

    I cannot understand why this building was lauded ! There is a complete absence of rounding the corner in the upper floors although it works on the lower floors Why ?
    J FitzgeraldFRIBA

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  • 'Who is it for'? is an interesting question - frequently redacted from the credits of projects published in the architectural media.
    Surprisingly often clients seem unaccountably shy of being identified, when you'd think that they'd be proud of what they'd commissioned.

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