There was a feature on TV this week about the grotesque golf trophies that the unfortunate professional is forced to model in front of the cameras should he or she triumph on tour. These ranged in design from various enormous jewel-encrusted totems, to a porcelain tiger, to an unrecognisable cast of Nelson Mandela. Competitors presumably are prepared to go through this humiliation as long as they have the huge winner’s cheque secured away in their pocket.
One of the outcomes of completing a building, or buildings, is that it can be put forward for an award. These trophies also come in many shapes and sizes, but are generally more tasteful than the golfing versions: a simple glass shard for an RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) Award; a sculptural twist of steel for a RICS (Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors) Award; a modest glass triangle for a Civic Trust Award, or an acrylic cube for a LEAF (Leading European Architects‘ Forum) Award. Sadly, there are no cheques to accompany these. In fact, the awards process is quite costly with entry fees to start the process off, then dinners in far-off places for the fortunate shortlisted teams.
However, architectural awards aren’t about reward in the tangible sense, save perhaps for some welcome publicity, peer recognition and staff morale. They are an opportunity for the designers, their clients and the wider design team to celebrate the conclusion of a project. Getting a building built can be a long journey, even for a modest scheme. A private house can easily take two or three years and a typical school or university faculty four to five. Imagine the timeline of a project like the Olympics or Crossrail. By the end, the people involved have either bonded forever – or fallen out horribly.
The RIBA Awards system has a strict hierarchy. It begins with a regional award, then these successful projects are nominated for a national award, then onto potential shortlisting for the coveted Stirling Prize and the accompanying smaller national prizes. One of the joys of being on the jury for these awards is the visits, often to private or inaccessible places. Having chaired two jury panels in recent years, I can say it is a privilege to witness first hand the best of these projects, particularly if they are normally out of bounds to the public. The jury is deliberately made up of professionals with different disciplines and backgrounds, but more often than not consensus is reached. This is because what ultimately matters in a successful building is not style, material, size, or the money thrown at it, but rather what it does to the senses. The experience is the unifier.