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The world's most beautiful competition

08 of December '23

Article from A&B issue 11|23

One of the best tools for promoting good architecture: competitions or rankings for successful works of the season. How to assess the value and credibility of these lists? After all, beyond the dozen or so recognized rankings stretches an ocean of paid contests for the "best buildings in the world." Do they serve only for promotion, or do they have any added value?

Every architect, some builders, architecture enthusiasts and a small percentage of the public know about the architectural Nobel Prize. It is known: the Pritzker Prize - awarded since 1979 for lifetime achievement. For Europeans, second in importance will be the Mies van der Rohe Prize. Also of international importance is the royal gold medal of the RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects), awarded since the mid-19th century. Further counting are prestigious national awards distributed by professional architectural bodies: associations, institutes and foundations.

In Poland, the most significant trophy is the SARP Honorary Award for lifetime achievement. No less important are also awards for specific realizations: annual awards of SARP, TUP, Polityka weekly. The much more "folksy" Bryla and Macabryla (which also began to rely on the decisions of a professional jury towards the end of their existence) also had their five minutes (of great educational significance). Next in line are regional and municipal trophies, also from professionals from the SARP or the Chamber of Architects. There are also nationwide competitions or plebiscites of commercial periodicals and Internet portals oriented to construction or architecture.
Up to this point, the situation is fairly clear, even if from time to time controversies arise over the number or scope of categories, the selection criteria, the composition of the jury or the method (or meaning) of online voting. Regardless of the objections, the rankings listed above enjoy reputations of varying strength - the largest being those (such as the Pritzker and Mies van der Rohe prizes), in which participation is already decided by thecompetition is determined primarily by the decision of professionals "scanning" and classifying architectural output (although, as we know, for the Pritzker you can also submit your own candidacy and win).

At the same time, on the basis of the growing popularity of "old" and reputable competitions, the number of international awards and rankings with hard to remember shuffle names related to architecture and design is growing. The organizers are usually bodies formed around magazines, foundations or online portals. One of the most recognizable is the Architizer A+Awards competition, with more and more budding in its shadow.

In the Polish media it is easy to recognize information about the projects honored by such competitions. Headlines scream about the best or most beautiful building in the world, or the first from Poland to achieve such great success in one of the most prestigious competitions of the globe. Not infrequently they echo with dignified phrases like "Polish architecture appreciated in the world." In the process, almost every one of these awards is called an architectural Oscar, rarely replaced by the title of Mister or Miss.

There are studios in Poland that even specialize in winning such trophies. Often these are not the offices that win awards in the important Polish competitions enumerated here at the beginning. This, however, comes as no surprise when in the finals of world competitions one sees houses of distorted proportions, a congenial and non-functional apartment building or a bizarre concert hall coming from Poland. PR agencies or investors, however, send information about the triumphs to the media, and the media- not infrequently - rewrite ready-made messages without changes or attempts at their own judgment. The awards gallery also feeds the studios' websites. Such a media combo becomes good publicity. Because, in fact, competitions of this type are primarily promotional in nature. For example, the organizers of the sixth edition of the Urban Design & Architecture Design Awards clearly state the goals of the competition:

Achieve positive PR. Stand out from the competition. Make your brand/agency/practice famous. Be known as a multi-award winner, showcase your talents and skills to current and potential clients. Assure customers that they are associated with the best.

Of course, nothing for free. Fees for such a promotion vary. The entry fee, depending on the competition, ranges from a few tens to five hundred euros per project or realization (in one category) or similar dollar amounts in the cases we have checked. The sums depend on the time. The earlier the submission in an edition, the cheaper. However, you also often have to pay for additional "services," especially if you win an award. The spectrum is wide and includes, for example, a mention on the contest website, a certificate with a QR code, the opportunity to post information about the award on your website, the announcement of the result from the stage, participation in the gala, and much more.
It is not uncommon for organizers to group these "benefits" in packages with different prices. Here the stakes can sometimes be very high. In the case of the German Design Awards, they reach up to 3,500 euros. Thus, as critics of such competitions shrewdly point out, instead of winning a monetary prize in these competitions, the prize is bought and organizers are rewarded in the process. This criticism rarely resounds in public, because - even if architects themselves do not participate in competition-promotions - according to the current interpretation of the ethics of the architectural profession, they do not want to "envy" the successes of their professional colleagues under their names.

Najpiękniejszy konkurs świata

© A&B

Moderate sums for entry fees are, by the way, acceptable by some, because it costs money to organize a competition, although - and here again an apt observation - the burden should be borne by wealthy sponsors, which these events do not lack. One of the big costs, besides arranging lavish galas (not in all competitions), is certainly payment for judges. After all, the guarantor of the brand of some competitions is to be its jurors - often with an affiliation in a well-known studio or institution. At other times, organizers go for quantity and present, for example, sixty jurors "from various disciplines and backgrounds from around the world [...] leading professionals from the fields of architecture, interior design, art, journalism, architectural photography and education who help shape the future of design."

In an equally watered-down manner, information is often provided (although there are exceptions) about the criteria and procedure by which projects or realizations are selected. Even if the organizer touches on the subject, it is sparsely, writing that the selection is made by the method of successive online approximations, for example. In competitions covering the whole world, moreover, it is difficult to expect anyone to mirror in kind the objects submitted, as well as those nominated. Even at the regional competition level, it is difficult to make a local inspection of all the proposals, pointing out the scattered and often inaccessible single-family houses.

It is also difficult to figure out how detailed the analysis of submitted projects and realizations is. Especially since Architizer, for example, arbitrarily treats the question of the necessary minimum of submitted floor plans or cross-sections. On the matter of criteria, instead, trivialities such as that "works rich in program, form and space, projects that push boundaries, and projects that address issues of sustainability, are people-centered and customer-oriented" must suffice.

The fact that money is the most important thing in such ventures is evidenced by a simple pre-selection test. In one competition, we entered completely made-up data into a form and - as instructed - waited for a confirmation email. No system verified our information, because within 24 hours we received a reply with a redirect to pay three hundred dollars. We didn't go any further, although it would have been interesting to see how far a hundred percent crafted information about the project or implementation would go. And what else needs to be paid in case of winning. Sometimes the organizer informs you right away that there are additional costs involved, which, it seems, cannot be waived:

If you win a prize, you will receive a comprehensive package of services to communicate your success to a wide audience. By registering for the award, you agree to all applicable service fees.

Finally, a very important point: paid international competitions are divided into a myriad of categories, something that studios or their agents are usually silent about in promotional communications. And so the "best office building in the world" may turn out to be the best office building of a certain scale, number of floors (there are sometimes such limitations) and so on. In addition - one of the dozen or so best office buildings that won equivalent awards. You usually pay extra (the same amount, although sometimes the organizers give a slight discount) for submitting the same project in subsequent categories (which increases the chances of any win or award).
Thus, there are one hundred and twenty-five categories (in several groups) in the Architizer A+ Awards. In the Global Architecture & Design Awards - thirty-four, in the Architecture & Design Collection Awards - seventy-three (in this case there is also a division of awards into platinum, gold, silver and bronze). "Only" twenty-three categories in architecture (excluding interiors and landscape architecture, which each have twelve subsets of their own) are offered by the Architecture MasterPrize competition.

It doesn't stop there, however. Let's take a closer look at just one of the categories of this latest competition: single-family homes. In the 2022 edition,there were nineteen equal "winners" in this field. In turn, fifty-nine (!) deservedan"honorable mention". In other categories of this ranking, some of the winners are further distinguished by the slogan "best of best." But, importantly, the proliferation of awards in this case does not go to business: there are no fees for winning. What probably matters is the large number of entries. It also happens that although the competition has categories, it gives the results in the form of a list of ninety "winners" (Urban Design & Architecture Design Awards).

The multitude of awards, mentions, medals, certificates and winners does not make it easy for the recipient to orient himself. On the contrary - it seems to be deliberately confusing. The media, in their current state, do not flock to take a closer look at the "prestigious" awards and broadcast texts about "great successes" without a stammer. The spectacular nature of some competitions (such as the World Design Awards), moreover, is often conquered by the fact that the winners were very well-known studios in them. Whether their participation is their own initiative or a promotional ploy by the organizers - we are unlikely to find out. In any case, in the e-mail we received, the incentive to put up the three hundred dollars was the following passages:

Jean Nouvel, SOM, Foster+Partners, Perkins & Will, IDOM, Arup, SJB, AECOM & Cordogan Clark & Associates, Arep International, HBC, HENN, II BY IV DESIGN, NADAA, Goettsch Partners, Aedas Rockwell Group and others are previous WINNERS. Don't miss the opportunity to win with your visionary design.

So are we in danger of a deluge of contest information that, like many other media reports, we won't be able to verify? Yes, there is probably no force today that would take the ranking business down a notch. In fact, it is not a reprehensible thing, provided, however, that in the general perception commercial contests are treated as a slightly more sophisticated form of paid promotion. They also have a certain educational value, directing public attention to architecture. So far, however, not only the average viewer, but also the ordinary architect preoccupied with his daily duties can equate the "old" and deserved competitions with their younger imitations.

A no-win situation? On the contrary. Paradoxically, it can be an impetus to raise the quality and prestige of existing competitions of established reputation. So that they clearly in plus distinguish themselves from commercial competitions. It is worth modifying the existing rankings so that they more fully and reliably assess the growing architecture in the country. It would be useful to have more local visions, listening to the opinions of users, deeper and more numerous deliberations by a well-paid jury. Sometimes this already happens, but it is not the rule.

It might also be worth considering diversifying the rankings in light of recent discussions related to the evaluation criteria. Some architects still prefer old-style architectural show-offs, some prefer more restrained and responsible architecture. So let there be both old-fashioned contests of beauty and technological prowess, but also competitions of a more nuanced nature. Perhaps there is also a need for an entirely new competition that judges buildings and spaces not from under the needle, but at least five years after commissioning.

Finally, the reasons why this rather than that particular project was chosen should be communicated more widely and accurately. It is also worth abandoning the custom whereby the jury speaks only in superlatives about the winners of the rankings. After all, there are always doubts or shortcomings worth pointing out. There are sometimes dissenting voices. These, too, are worth publicizing. All in order to raise the quality of the debate on architecture and draw new people into its current.

Also useful, and this is no joke, is a professional ranking of global commercial competitions. So that it would be clear which ones are somehow worth reckoning with, and which ones to take a swipe at. What is a commercial blowout, and what has some value? A piece of research work, because in this matter the degree of complexity and ambiguity is considerable. However, it would be good to see such a download in the form of a solid and communicative report on the SARP or NIAiU website someday.

Jakub Głaz

The vote has already been cast

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