Editorial: The Value of Awards

Elsa Lam on the changing landscape of architecture awards in Canada

Photo by Giorgio Trovato on Unsplash

When the Canadian Architect Awards of Excellence began in 1967, there were few architecture awards in Canada. The Massey Medals, which later became the Governor General’s Medals in Architecture, started in 1950, and a scattering of other awards recognized exemplary built works. 

Fifty-five years later, that picture has changed dramatically: according to research by the Université de Montréal, there are now over 70 organizations in Canada offering architecture awards. This explosion of awards is uniquely North American and relatively recent, according to lead researcher Jean-Pierre Chupin, who notes that architecture awards programs in Europe are more limited in number.

Adding to the complexity of the awards landscape is a shift in procurement criteria, in which many clients are now requesting lists of awards. This comes from a good-faith attempt to value architectural quality in their selection processes—although it also points to the awkwardness of squaring the often qualitative measure of what constitutes “good architecture” with the quantitative metrics and scorecards of standard procurement practices. 

On one hand, this has resulted in a field day for “pay-to-play” awards programs, which thrive on receiving large numbers of entries—and in turn, delivering large numbers of accolades. On the other hand, many organizations whose reputations are tied to high-quality awards are going though a soul-searching exercise. What are the right criteria for awards today? What do awards ultimately value? 

The Canadian Architect Awards occupy a unique place in this field, since they focus on future projects—ones that are in design and construction phases, rather than fully realized. Recognizing the possibility for aspirations to remain more intact at this stage, several years ago we layered social equity and environmental sustainability into the evaluation criteria. Two years ago, we also began asking for energy performance models, where available. 

As co-chair of the RAIC’s Awards Advisory Committee, I’ve also been involved in an ongoing process of revisiting the Institute’s awards. Part of this work has involved streamlining offerings, in order to present a more concise slate of awards. Within the renewed awards, there is a recognition of the changing nature of the profession and of the discipline. The RAIC Research and Innovation Award, for instance, has been expanded to recognize not just technological innovations, but new modes of practice and the important work being done in academic teaching and research, including in areas such as diversity, equity, inclusion and decolonization.

Questions around the fundamental value of awards were also at the heart of discussions at the Prairie Design Awards, for which I was a juror this fall, alongside architects Bruce Kuwabara, D’Arcy Jones, Lola Sheppard, photographer James Brittain, and landscape architect Mark van der Zalm. Including a professional photographer on the jury gave perspective to the reliance of architectural awards on photographic images, which, as Brittain noted, have increasingly adhered to a set of standard conventions. An alternative model can be seen in municipal design awards, where jurors visit
a shortlist of projects in-person. At an international level, the Aga Khan Awards for Architecture delegates a panel of technical reviewers to each project, who collect detailed information and interview building clients and occupants to report back to the jury.

The Prairie Design Awards jury also asked: How can awards programs take a more critical approach to questions of Indigeneity, social equity, and environmental accountability? The current mandate of the program is to “recognize innovation and design excellence,” but is this enough? “We need a sea change, and people know exactly what I’m talking about, because they feel the responsibility to do something,” said Bruce Kuwabara at a panel discussion following the awards presentation. “The criteria for what I thought constituted excellence in architecture—all the fundamentals—have shifted. The awards are great, but the challenge is bigger than the awards.”

Awards, ultimately, are just a small part of the transformation needed in architecture—albeit an important one, given their visibility as standard-bearers for excellence in the profession. How we respond to calls for equity, environmental sustainability, de-colonization, and accessibility—aligning them with the conventional measures of beauty, commodity, and delight in our work—has a value beyond awards. “There’s an expectation globally that Canada can do things differently,” said Kuwabara.