Design Awards: Honourable intentions

Design Awards: Honourable intentions
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First Published: Mon, Feb 18 2008. 12 10 AM IST

Updated: Mon, Feb 18 2008. 12 10 AM IST
The “Architect of the Year” awards administered by J.K. Cement Ltd were announced at the end of December 2007. Before that, the Indian Institute of Architects (IIA) announced its own awards for different categories, and Inside Outside, among the oldest design and architecture magazines in India, announced its “Designer of the Year” award, focusing on eco-friendly architecture. As in earlier years, these annual awards confirm existing reputations while focusing attention on relatively unknown architects in the smaller cities.
But things have changed a lot since the JK award was instituted in 1990, shortly after the first awards were instituted by IIA in the late 1980s. For one, there are many more awards today, and more are being announced every year. There has also been a minor explosion in the design press. With the economic boom, more buildings are being built across our cities and in small towns than before. So the question becomes pertinent: What is the purpose of design awards and how well have they served the profession and society?
The purpose
Awards are an important way for professions and industries to set benchmarks, encourage excellence and give a leg-up to innovators. Despite their shortcomings, says Pune-based Narendra Dengle, a practising architect and design chair at Kamala Raheja Vidyanidhi’s Institute of Architecture, Mumbai, “these major awards together have performed an important service by recognizing quality architecture both in India and in neighbouring countries”. All the awards together appear to cover a variety of practitioners, regions and building types across the country. There are separate categories for young architects, as well as a lifetime contribution award. Media attention also helps build the profession’s legitimacy within society. This is important, since architecture is still not always recognized as a profession central to building construction in large parts of the country, including some large and medium cities. The award circuit has also encouraged architects to document and communicate their work more professionally than ever before.
The evaluation process
But there are also all kinds of issues. The simplest ones are to do with the evaluation process which varies significantly across different awards. All major awards have independent juries comprising reputed architects. However, certain awards enjoy greater credibility because of the consistent quality of people invited to judge entries. Prem Chandavarkar, director of Chandavarkar and Thacker Architects Pvt. Ltd, among Bangalore’s oldest and most awarded architecture firms, believes that a wider pool of good quality jury members needs to be developed: “Invite some from outside India if required. Also embed the award process within a wider debate—seminars, critical writing, etc. Most important is to realize that the person organizing the award process has to take on the role of a curator and not just see himself/herself merely as an event manager.”
An unfair advantage
The discernment of jurors is particularly important because buildings are judged not on the basis of visits by jurors (too expensive and time-consuming at the national scale) but on the basis of photographs and drawings submitted by the architects. This may sound a bit like judging food by its description alone, but the sheer ubiquity of this method is its own validation at the moment.
In this situation, photogenic architecture has a much greater chance of winning awards (and the attention or approval of the community) than architecture that is not picturesque but achieves either a breakthrough in spatial experience or in process-related aspects such as user participation. Dean D’Cruz, a practising architect based in Goa, says: “If one has to carefully assess a building, one should be looking at how the building operates and judge its success from its use.”
Many things slip through the awards net. D’Cruz, for instance, believes that awards have a duty “to recognize good works of architecture that contribute to society and address the needs of having a low ecological footprint, responding to context and showing adaptability to change.” He laments that only the international Aga Khan Awards for Architecture seem to perform this role for India since it is one of the countries they cover.
Other gaps
There are other important gaps. A large number of exceptional architects never apply for the awards—some because of a possible aversion to what they see as inapt self-projection. Since awards highlight not just individual achievement but also the validity of certain approaches to building, the message of many important architects never reaches either the architectural community or society at large. Architect and writer Gautam Bhatia also points out that “there are no awards for encouraging architectural ideas. The unbuilt idea that may hold greater relevance to some Indian situations than a completed building.”
Ideas for the future
Evaluating architecture (or art) is always difficult. The parameters for judgement emerge anew whenever a fresh jury examines submissions. Thus Chandavarkar believes that awards are “an opportunity for the peer community to reflect upon its values and the parameters by which it evaluates architecture.” To ensure that a broad enough range of entries is brought up for evaluation and to include significant work that may normally never be entered for competition, D’Cruz and Dengle suggest that the submission process should be complemented by an independent process of nomination of entries for all categories of work (possibly by jurors themselves) from different parts of the country.
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First Published: Mon, Feb 18 2008. 12 10 AM IST