Pissing in pockets!

Every year about the time of the winter solstice the AIA (Australian Institute of Architects) in each State labours through a long process to hand out a series of awards to architects for different categories of buildings. 

In Victoria for example, and the other States are similar, there were 20 awards up for grabs this year, more than 220 architects submitted buildings and over fifty people took part in juries making selections.  Entrants were able to explain their designs to their particular jury and AIA members were able to attend.  Buildings can be submitted in more than one category and often win more that one award.  A substantial fee is required from the submitting architects to defray the cost of all this, so architects clearly think the awards have value for them.

This year Architecture Victoria, the journal of the Victorian Chapter of the AIA, published a special 137 page edition on the awards (normally it's only 50 pages), and every architect gets a small colour pic of his entry whether selected or not.  The culmination of the whole process is a posh black tie dinner when the awards are presented.

A legal friend of mine who riffles through the magazines on my desk whenever he visits is always greatly amused at what he describes as 'architects pissing in one another's pockets', and in some ways I have a hard time defending such closed awards.

The awards must be a good thing, one would think, at a time when the architectural profession and the scope and depth of it's services are undergoing attacks from developers, builders and project managers.  Quite apart from the traditional architectural consultants (structural, civil, mechanical, electrical and acoustic engineers, landscape architects, building, quantity and land surveyors) there is mounting competition from an increasing gaggle of specialist consultants.

In going through the consultant credits I found heritage, planning, environmental, ESD, library, graphic design, programming, durability, access, fire engineer, water management, lighting, façade, traffic, and kitchen consultants.  It's no wonder the scope of work and our fees are being eroded.

I think these buildings would be of great public interest if only the public could see them. At the moment it's such an internalised, almost a secret Masonic Lodge type process that, apart from a photograph of the most important building that might find its way into the Age (perhaps) there is zilch publicity and no place where the public can inspect the current state of Victorian architecture as revealed in these awards.  The AIA must do something about this.  I'd much rather have a public exhibition than a glossy magazine and an expensive dinner, and it would have a much greater and more serious public impact.  And as all the entries are required to be submitted on standard sized boards they are all ready to be exhibited. 

The buildings selected are of course, only the best buildings completed in 2014 in the opinion of particular juries.  Current fashion inevitably plays a part and only some of them will stand the test of time. 

And juries can sometimes complicate things too.  I was chairperson of the annual awards jury in NSW once (there were fewer awards and only the one jury) and my jury decided that none of the buildings submitted for the Sulman Award were good enough, so we recommended not awarding this main award. 

Quel horreur!  We were pressed hard to think again, what would all the AIA's financial sponsors for the awards think if prima donna architects like us refused to award them.  In the end in a Solomon like judgement the jury nominated two buildings equally for the main Sulman Award.  That was finally accepted but it satisfied no one; the architects in particular didn't want to get what they saw as half an award.  And then someone made a fuss that the average age of my jury was almost fifty and we hadn't given any of the house awards to young 'emerging' architects!  In retrospect it all sounds very Sydney: they seem to organise things better in Victoria!

Apart from the recognition of ones peers, I suspect that all architects hope that an award will help them get more work of a better kind.   I hope they are right, they deserve as much help as they can get, but I've won a few awards in my time and although it looked good on the CV it never directly led to new work as far as I know. 

 Each of the award winners has a page in Architecture Victoria with one or two colour pics and some text, and I approve of the current practice of crediting the whole architectural team who worked on the building.

Few of the buildings published show plans, probably lack of space, but it's a grave failing, one can't really appreciate a building properly without a plan.  It also irritates me that no addresses are given for the buildings.  I suspect that this is a misguided idea of maintaining privacy, particularly for owners of houses.  There may be some point with houses, although even there I like driving past.  But there is no reason is there, not to give the precise addresses of the Geelong Ring Road Rest Areas or the Dandenong Mental Health Facility?  I like to see buildings in their context rather than relying on those careful composed photographs, and addresses would help.

There are few women running their own practices in Australia (or elsewhere for that matter), a serious anomaly considering the equal numbers that start so bright eyed in first year.  So I was pleased to see that Kerstin Thompson Architects, with herself as design architect, won awards for three interesting looking buildings this year; the Birralee Primary School, an elegant house at Hanging Rock, and for the conversion of the former Wertheim Piano Factory into 34 apartments, a café and restaurant and a community hall. 

Birralee is an intelligent complete reworking of an outmoded 1960's school and should be regarded as a case study that should be applied to many schools of a similar vintage.  I understand Birralee in somewhere in Doncaster but no addresses are given, so don't ask me where the old Wertheim Piano factory is.  A pity, I'd like to go and sit in the café and experience the place; it looks interesting.

Brava Kerstin Thomson and her colleagues; watch out Zaha. 

So how do I reply to my legal friend next time about architects and their passion for awards?  I'd like to be able to tell him the closed professional nexus has been broken.
An annual exhibition open free to the pubic would make people more aware of what architects can do and might even lead to more work for the profession generally.

So please, let's have a big exhibition next year (with plans and sections), in the revamped Flinders Street Station Ballroom perhaps, or the Wintergarden in Fed Square.  Come on AIA, there should be an exhibition of all entries every year in some prominent place.  And there should be a two-page foldout in the Age of all the winning entries. 

No wonder the profession is being slowly eroded when the only marketing and cultural response from the AIA to an interesting body of work like this is a black tie dinner to piss in one another's pockets!

Don Gazzard LFAIA

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