If buildings are going to be eliminated [from awards] because they are only available to the wealthy, where will the line be drawn? writes Paul Finch
The Silly Season has started early, with the news that One Hyde Park, the apartment complex for the mega-rich in Knightsbridge, has been blocked from receiving a national award from the RIBA because, well, it is for the mega-rich. They might not even live there all the year round. Also they are foreign (was the faintly unpleasant unspoken sub-text).
If buildings are going to be eliminated because they are expensive and therefore only available to the wealthy, where is the line going to be drawn? After all, many of the excellent winners featured in last week’s AJ are scarcely within the financial remit of ordinary citizens. And what about libraries or music blocks for public schools, whose fees make it impossible for the poor (routinely) to attend them?
Why stop there? Why should awards be given to buildings where the construction cost is considerably in excess of the ‘going rate’ because of decisions about form and materials? How can you justify giving awards to buildings (like airports) that are dependent on behaviour that might be said to damage the ozone layer? What about, heaven forbid, private hospitals?
I couldn’t help fantasising about what might have happened historically had this anti-wealth attitude applied to buildings that ended up in the canon of architecture. ‘Kent architects slam Canterbury cathedral cost explosion,’ runs the headline. ‘Stone from Beauvais has been criticised by local architects as far too expensive for ordinary parishes, and means that when completed, in an expected 65 years’ time, the cathedral will be ruled out of the RIBA Awards programme.’
‘Villa Savoye doesn’t deserve an award,’ say French award judges. ‘French architects have condemned Swiss iconist Le Corbusier for designing a house that only a millionaire could afford to buy. One commented: it’s the same with the Maison de Verre. If a piece of architecture cannot be afforded by a chap who works in a factory, it is not worthy to be considered.’
‘Frank Lloyd Wright hits back over Falling Water criticism. The architect objected this week to the exclusion of his house from the American Institute of Architects awards programme. He said he objected to being told that his house designs are for people with lots of money, claiming that architects exist to serve those who can afford to build, and that any suggestion to the contrary is Communist propaganda.’
The most important element in any awards process is judgement, which is not the same thing as judging. The moment you start giving out or blocking awards for political reasons, you are sunk. Having served for ten years on the RIBA Awards group, I have seen a certain inclination to make awards for just such political reasons, though I should say it crops up in individual cases rather than as a general condition.
When John Simpson’s Queen’s Gallery failed to get an award from the local jury, we sniffed stylistic prejudice. We were told the kitchens were no good. A second panel re-visited. The chef said he was delighted with the new kitchens, which were far better than the old ones. The building received its award. Somebody had it in for Classicism, just as some this year have it in for the super-rich. They are entitled to their views; but they are about politics, not design quality.
Future Systems’ marvellous Harvey Nichols store in Birmingham was excluded from the Stirling Prize shortlist in favour of more politically/architecturally correct schemes which had far less interest: a missed opportunity to reward true originality because of an aversion to commerce - or worse, an aversion to a particular architectural style.