Architect of the Year 2004

Blueprint magazine decides its design awards by public ballot.

Josie Appleton

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Topics Politics

Most design awards are argued over in hushed tones behind closed doors; the public ceremonials come after all the decisions have been made. Not Blueprint magazine: its awards will be decided in the furnace of public debate, over the next few Wednesday evenings in the impressive setting of Christ Church in London’s Spitalfields. The audience will vote after every session, and the winners will be announced on 24 March.

Last Wednesday was the award for Architect of the Year 2004. Up for nomination were Enric Miralles/Benedetta Tagliabue Arquitectes, architects of the Scottish Parliament Building in Edinburgh; Rem Koolhaas (under his company OMA), the Dutch architect who designed Seattle’s Public Library; and John Pawson, for his minimalist monastery for Cistercian monks in the Czech Republic.

Magnus Linklater, columnist for The Times and Scotland on Sunday, put the case for Miralles, praising the beauty and functionality of the parliament complex. He sidestepped the worn debates about the late-running and over-budget project, subject of an inquiry that has dominated Scottish politics for months. Instead he looked at the building afresh, noting the curving, organic forms, the judicious incorporation of symbols of Scottish identity, and its appropriateness as a public forum. Designing a political institution today is a particularly thorny brief, at a time when these institutions lack a clear identity and are viewed with suspicion. It would be some achievement if Miralles has succeeded in designing a place where people feel inspired to meet and debate.

Next up was Times architecture critic Tom Dyckhoff, who argued for Koolhaas in artistic and historical terms, saying that he embodied the spirit of the times and had made a definitive leap in architectural practise. Dyckhoff too had to cut through public controversy to get to the building beneath – this time due to Koolhaas’ showman, posturing reputation. Koolhaas’ work involves dissonant juxtapositions and draws on the culture of the shopping mall, which embodies our age: ‘Capitalism is what life is’, said Dyckhoff. He described Koolhaas’ approach as ‘dirty realism’, ‘brutal honesty’, although not pessimistic – nobody this prolific could be genuinely pessimistic. It’s just the utopia is one designed for today, rather than sentimentally harking back to the past.

Finally there was Michael Hue-Williams, gallery owner and client of John Pawson. Hue-Williams praised Pawson’s almost spiritual striving for simplicity, his desire to pare down every element to its bare essentials. Though the speech was peppered with a few too many personal anecdotes, recollections about ‘John and I’ and ‘when I first became a client of John’, Pawson’s quality shone through. The £5million commission for a group of Cistercian monks was an apotheosis for Pawson, a meeting of minds of client and architect. The monks had searched the architect out, and he in turn lived with them to understand their lifestyle and needs. A unique building resulted from this synergy between designer and users.

The debate pushed the question of how architecture should be judged. Was it important to keep to budget and timescale? Yes, said Hue-Williams, saying that it was ‘grossly irresponsible’ not to work within your means; absolutely not, said Linklater, who said that he was ‘bored’ of the budget issue. And should architects or a building’s users decide the question of quality? Both, said Linklater, noting that the parliament building never failed to inspire strong reactions in visitors. Architects, said Dyckhoff, who argued that Koolhaas was the one who had ‘made most difference to what architecture does’, and who had the ‘most provocative agenda’.

On this question, my vote was with Koolhaas. Dyckhoff argued well for his importance as an architect of Now – capturing the zeitgeist and making leaps in design – which is a good reason why he should be Architect of the Year for 2004, rather than 1974 or 1984.

It is important to have such open public debates today, at a time when there is broad uncertainty about how to define cultural quality. The secrecy of artistic prizes doesn’t help, reinforcing the popular prejudice that the Turner Prize is decided by tossing dice or choosing the winner who would create the most controversy. When cultural standards are in doubt, critical and informed public debate is a good route to trying to establish new ones.

Blueprint debates are at 7pm at Christ Church, Spitalfields, on 9, 16 and 23 March, priced £11.75 per session. Call +44 (0) 207 490 0049 for more details.

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