Editorial: A Modest Proposal for Architecture Awards

More than we care to admit, architecture is partly a trick of the light. Much depends on the timing and context of your interaction with it and the medium through which it is delivered—the medium being paper or pixels more often than bricks and mortar. Architects across the country regularly submit images and textual explanations of their best work to multiple awards programmes. It’s becoming a crowded industry, and some awards are rather inconsequential. Others, like the provincial and national awards that we are proudly reporting on over the following pages, bring with them a large degree of credibility as well as publicity and prestige.

But in most cases, there is one commonality: they permit architectural evaluation based on simulacra. Even at the highest levels, very few projects can be visited in person by all the members of any given jury; several projects that make the shortlists and podiums—particularly those in remote locales or foreign countries—might not have been visited in person by even a single juror. In these cases, the architecture is not judged by the primordial experience of walking in and around it, but by flattering photography, drawings and texts explaining how well—in theory—the building works.

You know that’s not enough.

Massey Medals
The 1970 Massey Medals Cover.

This problem isn’t new: the November 1970 cover of The Canadian Architect, devoted to the Massey Medals in architecture, was emblazoned with this tagline: “If you failed to win this medal, turn to page 27.” On that page, managing editor Robert Gretton bewailed the results of that year’s medal selection, which he deemed to include some certifiable mediocrities while excluding obvious masterpieces. And then he offered this proviso: “It is very evident that after this year, it should be mandatory for every member of the jury to touch every building selected as a finalist with his fingertips.” Italics his.

Despite Gretton’s plea, there are still very few architectural adjudications that insist on this firsthand evaluation. Since 1970, photography and digital renderings have become exponentially more sophisticated and lifelike. On one hand, you could argue that such verisimilitude reduces the need to evaluate the buildings in person. On the other hand, it makes in-person evaluation all the more necessary: video fly-throughs, digital renderings and carefully photoshopped images—relentlessly delivered via Instagram and other channels—can delude us into thinking that we’re experiencing a building.

It is precisely because architecture has become such an intensely visual commodity that the walk-through is so important. It’s no secret that architectural awards are in danger of becoming more like photography competitions. Post-production work—once frowned upon and now widely acceptable—can significantly alter the look of a building and its apparent design qualities. The bestowing of an award on a remote, unvisited work of architecture is a leap of faith, an adjudicatory gamble, since design flaws can easily remain unknown to jurors. And yet the existence of these awards is crucial to architectural culture, inspiration, promotion and understanding. What to do?

One solution is to shift the priorities of the awards schedules and budgets. At the modest local level, insist that the jurors trek to every building. At the better-financed national and international level, redirect the adjudication fees towards the expense of sending at least one member of the jury to each shortlisted project. This would require more organization and a longer timeline, but can be revenue-neutral—save for the jurors who would have 
to give up their honoraria in the name of public service. But wouldn’t it be worth it?