Why Design Awards?

Posted Mar 16th, 2022 in Design, Business of Architecture, Current Issues, Niagara Architecture, Architectural Education

                 St.Catharines, Canada      8 March, 2017 

            Ian Ellingham, PhD, FRAIC, Chair: The Niagara Society of Architects      

I am pleased to be here this evening, to represent the Niagara Society of Architects.

Awards are interesting.  They are actively sought in many fields, and a great variety of them are handed out each year, including a few Nobel prizes.  Why do we have awards programmes at all?  James English, of the University of Pennsylvania, in his 2005 book Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value listed reasons why awards programmes are beneficial, not just to the recipient, but to wider society.  They create healthy competition, a sense of identity through achievement, the elevation of some individuals to star status; and something to do with creating cultural capital.     

Cultural capital is an interesting concept - it is an asset that can be used in the future by an individual or firm to get a project, but also it is a common good.  By recognising quality we encourage it, and, in the case of architecture, how it can translate into value is fairly obvious.  The striving of individuals to get an award can be manifested in a better built environment in which we can live, work and enjoy ourselves.  Don't underestimate the power of attractive environments - a few years ago, before the recent rejuvenation of St.Catharines' city centre, some friends from the UK were thinking of moving to Niagara.  After seeing the city centre, they were seriously wondering about coming - Diana, my wife, said, 'you never have to go there' and took them to the mall.  As a result, they moved to Niagara and still live and work here.  Fortunately, the St.Catharines city centre has since been transformed through some strategic building projects including the Performing Arts Centre, a university building and the hockey palace, and there is now much more human activity.  Those city centre buildings and streetscapes are the face of the city - something people consider when deciding where to locate their businesses.  In the case of architecture there are national and provincial awards, but numbers of Ontario regions have their own programmes, in order to create cultural capital specific to their own regions.  

Having been on awards juries, and having written about them, I can tell you that deciding is not easy.  The success of a building usually has to be measured against its potential, a most difficult thing to do, and a very slippery concept.  Buildings are usually the result the work of many people:  owners, planners, architects, financiers, regulators and a range of specialist consultants, and are built in specific contexts, and for specific user groups.  A building created for the affluent is likely to be different than one for people who are more cost-conscious.  Buildings have different geographical settings.  Therefore it is most appropriate to have different categories.  Regional awards are important - and here we attempt to assess buildings not in the abstract, but, relative to the very special geographical, climatic, economic and cultural aspects of Niagara.    

Awards are strange creatures.  You may or may not agree with the selection made by the jurors, and that is only to be expected.  It is rather like rankings of anything in which individual opinion plays a role - they depend upon exactly what group of people is making the judgement.  It is not like trying to figure out who jumped furthest or highest - you just measure that with a tape measure.  So take a look at the submissions - would you make the same selection?  And then try to figure out why or why not.  Ask yourself why you prefer one building over another.  What is important to you about a building or streetscape?  If you don't like the selection in some category, remember that other people did!  Try to figure out what attracted them to it.    

And, in a process like this, everyone wins, because all those architects, developers planners and builders striving for awards makes our region a better place for everyone.