The founder of Invisible Studio believes that architecural awards systems are broken
This has been the year when many in the architectural world cried ‘enough!’ The profession had always bullied FAT because, more than anything, it had dared not to be boring. For the most part many of us accepted the mean spirited bitchiness in the mainstream world of architecture towards FAT as an inevitable consequence of a world – a ‘profession’ as we pompously refer to it – that is, despite purporting to be free-thinking, steadfastly maintaining corporate Modernism as peddled by the same old names that have come to represent a typically British brand of middlebrow banality.
But this year, when FAT and Grayson Perry’s A House for Essex did not receive even a lowly regional RIBA award, there was collective shock. How on earth could a house that was beautiful, clever, authentic and inventive have fallen by the wayside; rejected as unsuitable for a regional award, effectively eliminating it as a possible contender for a national award, or any of the RIBA special prizes, including the Stirling and the RIBA House of the Year?
Despite our gasps, we of course understood absolutely why A House for Essex had been spurned
Despite our gasps, we of course understood absolutely why A House for Essex had been spurned. At a regional level, the RIBA Awards (through which any project must navigate if it is to be considered for a national award) are often presided over by jurors hell-bent on maintaining the predictability of the outmoded banal Vitruvian triumvirate – firmness, commodity and delight, or ‘same old, same old’ – which effectively forms the ‘checklist’ by which jurors can pigeonhole buildings. As Jeremy Till pointed out in Architecture Depends, so vacuous is this supposedly sacred threesome that it could qualify as the slogan for any political party, regardless of its bias.
Listening to regional jury chairs bristle about the awards decision for A House For Essex on social media was to listen to the predictable self-righteousness of the certain, unable to critically assess a work of architecture outside of their own prejudice or the absurdly limited checklist provided by the RIBA.
‘I just didn’t like it,’ said one; ‘wacky’ and ‘I don’t know anyone who likes it,’ said another, while a third remarked: ‘It’s only taste.’ Really? Is this all that our ‘great profession’ is capable of? In the world of regional awards juries, it seems that way; and is entirely expected within an institution where anything goes as long as it is sapless, vanilla and platitudinous.
Beyond A House for Essex, there is, as Ellis Woodman has previously pointed out, a fairly remarkable list of buildings that regional juries did not consider sufficiently accomplished to receive RIBA Awards, or even, in some cases, to be shortlisted. The list (which is not exhaustive) makes fairly sobering reading for even the most ardent RIBA Awards champion, and includes David Chipperfield Architects’ Fayland House (winner of The Architectural Review’s AR House of the Year award) in Buckinghamshire, Stephen Taylor’s Stapleton Hall Road houses, Cottrell & Vermeulen’s Brentwood School, Adam Khan Architects’ Pensthorpe Bird Reserve, Lynch Architects’ Marsh View and AOC’s The Green.
Fayland House by David Chipperfield Architects
Source: Simon Menges
Were it that the level of attainment was so high among regional award winners, one might understand the omission of these projects from the list, even if one did not agree.
But, much of the annual lists of winners are made up of the entirely predictable, middling and plain old dull that characterises so much of British regional architecture, and so these omissions undermine the credibility of an awards system that should be able to separate juror prejudice from genuine architectural merit.
Really we should be used to this as the UK has consistently been unable to champion the truly excellent, as witnessed in our repeated bungling of large cultural projects from Cardiff Bay Opera House to – as Jonathan Meades so appositely put it – the ‘embarrassingly feeble’ National Gallery extension. Put simply, we are scared when something is too good, too different, too unusual, or too bloody clever.
There was a time when ‘architectural merit’ was easier for many to define, but the architectural world has moved on immeasurably since it was occupied by the comfortable certainty of Vitruvius or Mies. It’s a diverse, plural world that we inhabit now. If the Turner Prize can broaden to include art that is diverse, surely the RIBA Awards should do the same? Perish the thought that Assemble’s Granby Four Streets could ever had won the Stirling Prize, let alone an RIBA award at any level.
Assemble’s Turner Prize installation
Most of the major or minor RIBA winners have, of course, been pretty safe ‘high’ architecture, and there is little doubt that this needs to change to reflect an emerging wider discourse in contemporary practice. The tide is turning away from what Sean Griffiths so perfectly described as the men in their colourful shirts/black suit combos, to a generation of younger, more engaged practitioners, producing work that much of the old guard would probably not even consider ‘architecture’, but which represents exciting new possibilities for a ‘profession’ that needs rethinking, and from an accepted mode of practice that many are abandoning.
Hardly a day goes by without a junk email or call, promoting yet another inconsequential award and calling for entries. If the purpose of the RIBA Awards is to protect the status quo, most of the burgeoning number of awards in the UK and internationally are no better, being commercial affairs. As Hugh Pearman has pointed out on Facebook, these are usually cynically invented solely to make money for the organisers. Along with the RIBA Awards, the currency of these is decreasing, as fewer architects seek the self-congratulatory and self-indulgent boosts to their self worth.
Possibly the only awards worth receiving are those that cannot be entered – including the Turner and the Pritzker – but even these, despite Assemble’s win, feel irrelevant to many contemporary practitioners, who are abandoning the RIBA-sanctioned value systems of the previous generation and its support for a system that reinforces cultural conformity.
Other than being big business for the organisers, the awards systems also underpin and reinforce a tacit separation between architects and non-architects – who we sanctimoniously refer to as ‘the general public’ – from whom our work is becoming increasingly removed and irrelevant.
I suspect winning a peer award means more for many architects than producing a building of social, creative and cultural worth that does not fit within the strait jacket of awards conformity.
Like many others, I’ve grown tired of awards and their meaningless rhetoric, and suggest we follow the dignified example of architects such as Irena Bauman of Bauman Lyons Architects, and simply refuse to enter.