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Award winning: what does it really mean?

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With the architectural award season upon us, architect Cymon Allfrey asks whether the public really agree with the judges.

Celebrating architecture is something we should be undertaking as a community: something that should be driven by the individuals, and general public, who experience the building on a daily basis. So why do we only celebrate architecture within programmes that dovetail directly into organised societies goals and objectives?

From the Canterbury Heritage Awards to the New Zealand Architecture awards, there are numerous programmes that celebrate successful buildings’, be they residential or commercial. Yet where do these awards fit with public importance, and the public’s selection of an architect for their own project? What relevance does award winning architecture play in the public mind?

The criteria within industry awards are driven by the operating professional bodies. They are inherently purist in their approach and take the view that it is about execution and the contribution to the public realm, in a bricks and mortar sense only. The focus is placed on the tactile side of architecture. While there is no doubt that award winning buildings can result in a benefit to the designer, and offer a legacy to both the client and the architect, the intangible qualities of the architect and the building are left unrecognized.

Raising questions around whether the weighting of awards criteria allows for the buildings most loved by the public, to become award winning.

Recently a member of the public came into our office with a token of appreciation to celebrate and acknowledge the ‘delightful’ contribution we had made to her local streetscape. The building in question is one that she walks past every day, that she deems to be a success and a ‘wonderful example of architecture’, yet it is a project we would never enter into an awards programme, as from an industry perspective it doesn’t have the qualities of an award winner. So how do we celebrate the contribution architecture makes to those outside of the professional community?

When talking about successful architectural buildings and spaces in the city with my fifteen year old daughter, she identified Re:Start Mall as one that she loves. Not because of the use of containers or the architectural success of the space, but because of the energy you encounter when visiting. A notion mirrored by the visitor to our office: she was congratulating us on not only the success of the object, but the way it makes her feel when she passes by it.

For the public, the success of a building is in the intangible: in the energy and the feelings it creates for us. The interest it generates as a social space. These are the qualities that endear us to the building in time. Yet for the architect, the success, and the award-winning ribbon, is placed on the meeting of set criteria and what academia may define as good architecture: does the building achieve architectural excellence and promote the profession of architecture. No emotion is brought into it.

The challenge is out there for the community at large to decide if we are celebrating the right buildings’ in these award programmes. Are we elevating the right places? While they might be a clear example of architectural excellence, are they providing excellence in other ways and inspiring the community?

Published in Metropol Magazine

Published on Thursday, July 14th, 2016