Paul Finch’s Letter from London: The system will never be perfect. It is an example of the sorites paradox, says Paul Finch
I had the pleasure last month of compering the London RIBA Awards ceremony, which was held this year in Schmidt Hammer Lassen’s fine building for the City of Westminster College at Paddington Green. The award winners were terrific, and fears that the financial downturn that began in 2007 would leave us bereft of good architecture have proved unfounded. I would say that – in the capital at least – it has been a vintage year.
As for the awards as a system, there is controversy over the number of ‘RIBA Awards’ made this year – many less than in recent years. These awards should properly be called RIBA National Awards but, for reasons that no one at the RIBA or anywhere else can explain, they are not thus described. On the other hand, RIBA Regional Awards are correctly described, and there are plenty of them.
Organisations often get themselves into twists over this sort of issue and endless changes to the RIBA Awards system, made virtually annually over the past decade, have done nothing to help. However well intentioned, they suggest that the institute is incapable of making its mind up and will redesign the system, given half a chance.
This is a pity, because the mechanics of the award are impeccable, as is the independence and rigour with which the process is conducted. Everything is visited by people who know what they are talking about, and always with a lay judge in tow. The chair of each regional jury is from outside that region. There is scrutiny of the process by an awards group, which has the chance to see everything and can advise on the appropriateness of awards, and at what level, having seen presentations of all the visited buildings.
Nevertheless there is a feeling of unease about the awards, which partly stems from (in my view) perverse decisions in respect of the Stirling Prize.
Hopkins Architects’ Olympic Velodrome should have won the Stirling Prize last year. The Eden Project should have been a winner. The Accordia housing was only a first phase. Birmingham Selfridges didn’t make the shortlist. And so on. The fact that the Stirling Prize ceremony will not be broadcast on television this year may be coincidental, but it adds to the cloud cover, as does the absence of a headline sponsor.
The AJ, it seems, is only required as a media supporter, which feels a bit odd after a decade of partnership that has produced more than £500,000 for the institute awards programme. Hey ho.
Finally, there is the question of numbers, and how one strikes a balance between regional and national ‘levels’. Here the problem is one demonstrated by the sorites paradox, which concerned a pile of sand, and what happens if you take one grain away. It is surely still a pile. The inexorable logic is that the pile still exists even when there is only a handful of grains left.
So how do you distinguish between the best design which has won a regional award, and the worst design which has been regarded as achieving national status? Can it ever be that obvious? I fear the quest for perfection is doomed to failure, and all one can do is to be as honest as possible, and accept that nobody is infallible when it comes to judging.
The RIBA Awards’ regional panels are asked for recommendations as to what they think is worth a national award, and they seem clear where the distinction lies. Worth a detour, perhaps.
So I would leave almost everything as it is and review after, say, three years. The only change would be to call the National Awards just that. Of course it’s elitist; all awards are.