Article (May 01, 2001)

Speaking at last year’s National Practice Program Forum at the RAIC Festival of Architecture in Ottawa, David Dunn, Director of Global Planning and Design for Nortel Networks, criticized architectural awards programs and publications like this magazine for basing critical recognition on what he characterized as superficial aesthetics. His comments met with wide approval from an attentive audience of architects, whose response was to unleash what seemed to be considerable pent-up frustration, even resentment, over the way in which architectural projects are evaluated and rewarded–that is, on the basis of design aesthetics at the expense of, say, technical performance or user satisfaction. While this assessment is debatable–architectural peer juries take these broader issues into account, and many architects would take issue with the notion that good design can be isolated from other areas of consideration–it is an opinion that clearly enjoys considerable currency.

Sensitive to this point of view, in 1998 the RAIC established an Awards Task Force to undertake a review of architectural awards programs in Canada. The Task Force proposed a variety of awards addressing areas of architectural practice not formally recognized by existing programs. These covered a wide range of issues, and have been discussed in some detail in this magazine (see “Renovating the GG’s,” May 1999). This year, the RAIC will inaugurate two of these new awards at the Festival of Architecture in Halifax: one for Innovation in Architecture, and another for Contract Documentation (see page 37), heralding a new chapter in the Institute’s recognition and promotion of various aspects of the profession’s expertise.

These categories will open up opportunities for recognition in areas of fundamental importance to the successful delivery of quality projects that are seldom seen or understood by people outside of the building industry. They also reflect a basic reality of practice: this type of work comprises the lion’s share of architectural services, and without it, even the best design can’t be translated into a successful building. In addition, the awards can play an important role in broadening the public’s understanding of and appreciation for the diverse and complex role that architects play in the conception and production of the built environment. Any effort that leads to a broader awareness of the valuable expertise that architects can provide is both necessary and welcome.

But if these new awards programs are to attain a degree of relevance beyond a small community of initiates, then the RAIC will have to use them strategically as part of a larger program of education, both within the profession and beyond. Otherwise, they run the risk of becoming the purview of a small circle of experts and attracting criticism similar to that being directed at design awards.

Having launched this new program, the RAIC is considering implementing a number of other Task Force recommendations: awards for Social Advancement, Environmentally Responsible Design, Architectural Conservation and Urban Design, among others. In the end, the most valuable contribution that these programs can make is to broaden awareness of the considerations necessary for the creation of architecture of high quality. While the recognition of particular areas of expertise can serve to highlight the range of concerns that inform contemporary practice, the ultimate goal should not be to simply encourage excellence in a narrowly defined field, but foster a more comprehensive definition of excellence that integrates the multitude of components that constitute enduring architecture. Marco Polo