In 448 B.C., what is widely believed by historians to be the first professional design competition in recorded history was announced, requesting artists to submit proposals for a war memorial on the Acropolis in Athens. Design competitions have remained a common method for procuring architectural commissions ever since, and prestigious competitions have catapulted many architects to global prominence. In the mid-20th century, as public media became widespread in industrialized nations, design awards programs also blossomed, and the advent of the internet brought with it another significant boom in design awards programs as many private, for-profit companies recognized the lucrative nature of these programs.
Over the years, I’ve been part of philosophical discussions regarding the role of design awards — and recognition in general — through my involvement with design awards committees and, most recently, with TxA’s Publications Committee. For a new generation of architects, it seems that recognition for recognition’s sake doesn’t hold the same allure that it did in the past. I’ve often wondered whether the prestige of these accolades has been diminished by their pervasiveness, or whether a more fundamental shift in values has occurred as more people recognize that a winner-takes-all mentality no longer aligns with the continued existence of our species and the health of our planet.
The structure of design awards has always had limitations, as is true of all human-made systems. Generally speaking, design award submissions require a short project presentation, comprised of a handful of drawings and photos along with a concise narrative. With a pool that could include several hundred submissions, jurors must move quickly through the entries, often being able to allocate only a few minutes per project. As a result, the successful submission is usually pithy, communicating a design intent that is quickly and easily understood.
While this can be a valuable exercise for clarifying ideas and honing architectural communication skills, larger complex projects are often at a disadvantage when assessed under these conditions, being passed over for smaller projects readily expressed in just a few photos. This is not to diminish the value of either scale of project but to acknowledge the realities and constraints that are common within design awards programs.
Quality photography — or lack thereof — is another factor that can make or break a design award submission. For better or worse, a well-timed, strategically angled photograph can highlight the best features of a design while cleverly disguising its shortcomings; conversely, a strong project can be rendered muddy and lifeless if the photography is poor. But quality photography comes at a price — as it should — often making it cost-prohibitive for smaller firms or lower-budget projects, which may result in underrepresentation of both within design awards programs.
Over the past decade, the requirements and focus of design awards programs have shifted, reflecting changes to the ethos and discourse of the profession itself. First, a push for more sustainable buildings led to greater emphasis being placed on building performance metrics. Then, social justice issues were propelled to center stage following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 and the subsequent Black Lives Matter movement. (This is not to say that sustainability and social justice issues have not been concerns within the practice of architecture for some time, but that they have become far more central to everyday discussions within the profession in recent years.)
While these are both critical areas of attention, their integration into the design awards process has brought its own set of challenges. A rigorous set of building performance metrics, including energy use intensity and water usage, for example, was first established through the AIA COTE Top Ten Award. The parameters for this award informed the development of AIA’s Framework for Design Excellence, which has since been integrated into the submission process of many state and local AIA design awards programs. While this type of rigorous analytical project assessment can bring much value to the profession and to clients, it requires a significant time investment — often hundreds of hours — which may, again, leave smaller firms and certain project types in the margins.
If there were a magic bullet to reconcile these tensions, I would offer it. But there isn’t. However, there is reason for optimism. As conversations around equity, diversity, and inclusion have become more intentional and prevalent, and as we as individuals and professionals have become more aware of our personal biases, the jury process is changing accordingly. Jurors increasingly are recognizing the advantage that a generous budget gives a project and, on the flip side, the value of projects that, although they may face more constraints, provide greater community impact. We can do our best to support this process by assembling a jury diverse in geography, gender, race and ethnicity, and practice type, but in the end the outcomes can still be unexpected. A dynamic unique to that group of people is created in the moment, often driving unforeseen insights and conversation. It isn’t analytical so much as it’s alchemical — and so far, humanity still beats an algorithm.