Friday 30 May 2008

Judging architecture

Emma Cullinan was one of the judges at this year's RIAI awards. She gives an insight into how the winning schemes were chosen.

THERE WERE 217 entries to the RIAI (Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland) awards this year - the highest ever - and it is breathtaking to see presentations of these projects laid out on tables across two rooms in the RIAI offices. All that hard work - all that hope.

You could not judge architecture alone, it is a somewhat subjective pursuit, although time enough in the profession brings objectivity too. Here there was a lovely mix of assessors offering various tastes and insights.

In some cases it's easy to pick award winners - good architecture just is - and the whole jury immediately concurs.

There are clear losers too. How can an architectural-award jury give prizes to pseudo-Tudor or Mock Georgian housing schemes? They may be much loved among their target audience but they are not clever and cutting-edge. They enter the contest all the same.

Beyond the obvious choices it gets fuzzy: where one jury member likes a style and the others aren't so sure, or where a scheme has good aspects but they don't quite add up to a delightful whole. Or where there's a divine plan and devilish massing.

Chair Joan O'Connor displayed her project-management talents in ushering us through the process at a cracking pace. The awards are in categories and all six judges (including Rob Docter, Greg Tisdall, Paul Keogh and Nicki Matthews) looked at everything in each class before coming together to discuss.

While Joan would give her view first she was quite happy to be challenged and everything being advocated by anybody was left on the table, ready for someone to fight its corner. Gradually the schemes were whittled to around seven projects: one winning the award, two highly commended, two commended and then two or more exhibitions.

So if you felt passionate enough about a building you needed to champion it - sometimes alone; thinking, 'if only the architect could see me now'.

Sometimes you would hear another judge defending a project in terms you agreed with and would join with them. In one rare case the judges were split over the award in one category - lining up, three against three. Both contenders were buildings of beauty but different in style.

At times like this you realise how the same word means different things to different architectural assessors: some using "austere" to praise a building's wonderful sense of restraint while others employ the word to criticise a structure's severity.

As with semantics, so with style. When is a pitched-roof, white walled house a clever, contemporary twist on Irish vernacular and when is it a lazy, quick-draw, cheap-build house type? Not always clear if the photography is excellent. The entries were anonymous - although many were known to, and had been seen by, us judges - so you could not necessarily rely on knowledge of an architect's reputation for design and detailing in all cases.

The quality was mainly clear, though, in the massing, composition, detailing (a clever twist on tradition that says something new or bog standard?) and quota of plastic wrecking the elevations. You don't, after all, see white polymer piping running down the front of Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Water or swan neck guttering clutching the roof of Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth glass house. Good architecture sees it through from foundation to gutter (although that might involve a battle with the client).

Similarly, while the submissions could be, and were often, pleasingly straightforward and basic, clarity of presentation was appreciated; if the submission comprised creased, murky colour photocopies on standard photocopying paper all bundled into one envelope together you did wonder as to the quality of detailing in the buildings.

Gradually criteria and buzzwords emerged to help in the selection and to keep up the momentum. "Derivative" derogatively referred to buildings that had been designed by casting around current world trends and sticking a selection of these together in a less than harmonious composition. Or it meant that a building was concentrating on one particular style: I was fond of a brick housing scheme but it was dismissed as being too Dutch school (which caused the Dutch assessor, Rob Docter, to raise his eyebrows quizzically), another building was "too Libeskind". That said, rather those buildings that have a go at something new than those which go for the lowest common denominator.

Judging these awards gives a snapshot of what is happening countrywide and the view is good. Many designers are striving for a new design language for Ireland. Some of it may not be world-class architecture but it is better than so much that has gone before.

Conversely there is still much inhumane corporate architecture. Big "luxurious" schemes that have had plenty of publicity just couldn't impress the design judges: injecting a building with bling doesn't necessarily make it sing.

Another phrase used against office design was "four-pipe fan coil air con": if an office was designed in such a way - for instance with a deep plan - that it looked as if it might require air conditioning then that counted against it. Hospital projects that showed swish photos of communal areas and none of the actual wards got short shrift as did schemes that had won an award for an earlier phase.

Buildings photographed and drawn on their own, without showing how they fit into the surrounding area, made the judges wary.

One judge pointed out that golf backwards is "flog" and such schemes had that notion suspiciously hanging over them.

Some projects were moved into new categories, especially one that was in a category all of its own. You can be clever in awards by choosing classes that have few entrants. Mixed-used schemes were in the happy position of being able to enter a variety of categories. Sometimes that could hinder - the good ones can't be given awards in all of the categories thus sweeping the board - and at other times it helped. The unskilful apartment design could be ignored while another aspect of the scheme could take a bow.

Also, architects could win in one category for one building and get nothing in another category for a different project.

The winning designs tended to have gone beyond the brief. The client comments were telling. An animal shelter group said: "Our architects spent so much effort in putting together an aesthetic and contemporary feel to the exterior but to us, who spend eight and 10 hours a day using it, the outside is actually immaterial." Luckily the architects went well beyond that requirement and nabbed a design award in the process. We found it both strange and delightful to be celebrating a dog's home. Similarly a hair salon in Cork. The retail category was fairly depressing. This is the face of architecture that most people see and yet - hey ho - the usual plain white walls and stark lighting. Yet an architect had taken the salon brief and created a double-height space along with small rooms that had views through to other parts of the building, helped by jauntily placed mirrors and glass.

Similarly, many architects deserve bravery awards. Design is taking a little pause - as is the property market - as architects have to work out where to go next and competent designers who explore new styles are heroic.

You be the judge: vote for your favourite from the shortlist on www. from June 4th

The awards will be presented at CHQ in Dublin's Docklands, on June 23rd, hosted by Ryan Tubridy.

The Irish Times

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