Hélène Binet

The announcement late last week of this year’s winner of the RIBA’s Stirling Prize in the United Kingdom, on national television no less, raises the question: why not here?

There are plenty of award programs in the United States, starting with the national AIA Honor Awards, along with its Gold Medal and various other recognitions, and then the panoply of state and local AIA chapter awards. Various trade councils concentrating on different materials such as wood and concrete have awards, and there are ones give by various specialized trade groups for different types. This magazine gives awards, as does Architizer, and then there are more outré ones such as those given out for fantasy architecture (e.g., the Fairy Tale Architecture competition, about which I have blogged before) and what seems to me an even greater amount of awards for students.

Other than architects, who ever hears about these prizes? Occasionally an architect with a good communications consulting firm will manage to get a notice into a local paper, and our national newspaper of record, the New York Times, does mention at least the Gold Medal winner when she or he is announced. That, however, is about it.

Courtesy Building Design

In the United Kingdom—and all over Europe, for that matter—major awards in design are a big deal. Even the counter-prize, the Carbuncle Cup for the worst new building in England, receives a lot of press.

Jeanne Gang, FAIA, became a MacArthur Fellow in 2011.
Jeanne Gang, FAIA, became a MacArthur Fellow in 2011.

Part of the reason for this contrast is that culture in general is a bigger deal over there. Think about the Man Booker Prize, an annual award for literature that sends even non-book-reading bookies into overdrive before it is announced. The same is true for the Turner Prize in art. The closest we come in that area are the National Medals and the MacArthur “genius” awards, although very few architects receive either of those.

You could also argue that the British are more sensitive to architecture because they have more monuments and just good urban fabric all around them (though the latter disappears pretty quickly outside of the major cities’ inner cores); thus there are more examples of what is good, and new buildings must be very accomplished to catch notice.

Hélène Binet

This might also account for the rather conservative nature of the Stirling Prize—which is surprising, given the fact that James Stirling, for whom the award is named, loved to break boundaries. This year’s winner, Newport Street Gallery—a complex of new and renovated buildings designed by Caruso St. John for the artist Damien Hirst—is no exception, although it does honor Stirling’s interests in buildings that were hybrids of preservation and new additions. I have not seen the project, but from the photographs and my knowledge of the firm’s other work, it seems to be a good example of the sensitive approach to coaxing sensual effects out of simple materials and forms. It is not going to change the world, but it looks to be a well-made and well-thought out piece of design.

In this country, however, it is all about the splash, and that means money. If somebody wants to make a big impact in a culture such as ours, I would suggest they give a prize with enough bucks behind it to catch the media’s attention. A million dollars would do it. Could that money be spent on something good and basic such as social housing? Yes, but the value of good publicity is immense and having something to work towards would also help energize practices. Calling all billionaires who have benefited from having their ephemeral lives and generosity enshrined by good architecture: How about the Kahn Prize? Or, to be patriotic (though there is also a Medal with that name, and the AIA has its own), the Jefferson Prize? Dare I say it, to truly reward innovation and American contributions, the Frank Lloyd Wright Prize?

Editor's note: ARCHITECT's longest running awards program, the 64th Annual Progressive Architecture (P/A) Awards, is currently accepting submissions.