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The French know how to fete the architectural creme de la creme

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Paul Finch’s letter from London: Britain should take a lesson from the French in how to celebrate individual design talent

I was invited to Paris last week, for a Légion d’honneur award ceremony celebrating the work of Manuelle Gautrand, architect among other things of the Citroën museum/showroom on the Champs-Elysées.

The ceremony took place in her latest completed project, the renovation of the Gaîté Lyrique theatre in the 3rd arrondissement, which has had a chequered history as music hall, hippy hang-out and now creative digital technology mediathèque.

The award ceremony was conducted by Dominique Alba, director of the Pavillion de l’Arsenal, and attended, among many others, by the local mayor. It was both a friendly and serious occasion, with formal speeches reflecting on the current condition of French architecture, and an informal party afterwards.

The event set me thinking about the way we honour architects in the UK, and whether we are missing an opportunity to properly recognise architectural design talent. It is a curiosity that students at British architecture schools can win the Bronze Medal for Part 1 achievement, and the Silver Medal at Part 2. These are difficult to achieve, but not nearly so difficult as winning the only other serious honour the RIBA can bestow on an individual architect: the Royal Gold Medal. Recommended by the institute but never yet contradicted by the monarch, this can be given to anyone from any country. It is not about rewarding RIBA members, British or otherwise, or even necessarily an individual architect.

Of course we have our national honours system, which celebrates individual achievement, but it is never awarded simply on the basis of design excellence. It is ‘for services to architecture’ or some similar phrase. Architects as a group have had their fair share of honours over the past two decades, but the suffix of MBE, OBE or CBE is not necessarily used publicly by those honoured. And there are plenty of recipients who are honoured for their contribution to public life rather than for being brilliant designers.

Knighthoods tend to be used a bit more often (it does help with booking restaurant tables), and peerages when occasion demands, though architects are just as likely to ask to be introduced in public by their name rather than their title. Once you move to the stratosphere of Companions of Honour, or the ultimate accolade, the Order of Merit, few people know what the differences are, let alone what architects (if any) are holders.

In recent decades we have lost any recognisable distinction between an architect in general, and a really good design architect who is in the top league of the profession. In theory, this used to be partly acknowledged by a RIBA Fellowship, but even this recognition was never based on design excellence alone.

Fellowships fell into disrepute and were abandoned in the 1970s as an indefensible symbol of an old boys network, where survival seemed to be the key attribute to achieving status. So now your building can win a RIBA Award, but the award is (a) for the building and (b) for the practice that produced it, not for individual achievement.

Would it be too elitist to suggest that RIBA members should be able to submit portfolios demonstrating design excellence across a range of projects in order to become Fellows? Existing gold medallists and Royal Academicians could form an initial jury. The struggle to acknowledge any difference in skill between its members is in the RIBA’s DNA. Yet in most professions there is a recognised elite, for example QCs as opposed to plain barristers.

The absence of some sort of acknowledged skill hierarchy means that one architect can be treated much the same as another by regulatory authorities and junior planners. There needs to be some way of recognising people with exceptional design skills, which is not something an MBE quite cracks.

In the absence of a British equivalent of the Légion d’honneur, it may be that the RIBA should consider reconstituting its fellowship class, but to promote excellent designers, not professional longevity.

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