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The Americans have got it right when honouring architects

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Acknowledging individual architectural excellence would enhance the profession, says Paul Finch

At MIPIM last week, there was plenty of opportunity to celebrate buildings and future projects through various award schemes. The recipients were of course architects and sometimes clients. That is the nature of architectural awards: the RIBA Stirling Prize is made for a built work, but the recipient is the person responsible for its design.

It is a curiosity that, while undergraduates and graduates in UK schools are eligible to win personal prizes in the form of bronze and silver RIBA medals, once you have qualified there is only one individual honour the institute can bestow on you: the Royal Gold Medal, which is a global rather than UK honour.

The institute is now reconsidering the basis on which fellowships might be awarded, which provides the opportunity to think about the status of individual architects, a subject fraught with difficulty and baggage, but it is right to do so.

Portland Place scrapped fellowships three decades ago when it became clear that they were no more than Buggins’-turn handouts. So these days, the signifiers of individual design excellence are extremely limited: peerages and knighthoods, and membership of the Royal Academy. Only a minute proportion of the profession can be celebrated in this way – quite unlike, say, the QC caste of barristers.

If it chose to, the RIBA could reconstitute the idea of individual achievement being rewarded, even though to do so is by definition to accept that not all architects are equally talented, despite being equal members of their professional institute.

Who would decide on such fellowships? You could start with a cadre of the people mentioned above, who could then act as the gatekeepers of quality for additions to the ranks. Those additions could be made on the basis of submitted portfolios of work, with referees and other endorsements required – the American Institute of Architects does this very well.

As in the US, there would be an expectation that successful practices would have at least one partner or director – and quite possibly more – who was a fellow. The status of design would gradually increase inside offices, and would feed through to clients, who would of course be part of the celebrations when fellowships were awarded. This would be an important moment in the life of the institute each year. The work of new fellows could be exhibited and celebrated around the country.

Although delighted to have been made an honorary fellow by the RIBA many years ago, I continue to feel a slight embarrassment that fine design architects cannot be given any such recognition by their peers – indeed currently there is a prohibition on members of the institute becoming honorary fellows, Peter Rees being the exception who proved the rule.

Possibly the group charged with deciding these matters will be reluctant to premiate one designer over another; it may seem to run counter to the spirit of an age in which any suggestion of elitism is regarded as faintly unsavoury. But that is surely a passing phase, since excellence in all fields of human activity should be promoted, not denied.

A more serious objection to a fellowship system being based purely on individual design work is that it would deny inevitable collaboration in the design process, particularly where you have partners who work together. The response might be to invite joint applications for fellowships, while still applying the same rules about referees and endorsements.

It is time for the institute to stand up for architecture. The key principle should be that, to obtain a fellowship, it is not who you know (or how old you are) that matters, but the excellence of what you have designed.

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