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Are awards worth winning?

Aug 28, 2018
  • Article by Deborah Singerman

What can build reputation, help to confirm your creative approach, add to a stockpile of history, joy and opportunity, and make hard work truly worthwhile? In a word, winning!

Here, AR speaks with small and medium-sized firms that have either won a design competition for a high-profile, imaginative commission or received an award for an original, completed project. Each has its own reasons for pursuing this architectural endeavour and while it is no guarantee of more clients knocking on the door, such achievements do give an inestimable boost to their professional and design confidence.

Indigo Slam won Smart Design Studio the Robin Boyd Award for Residential Architecture – Houses (New) at the 2016 Australian Institute of Architects Awards. “It’s always nice to have your work recognised publicly and ultimately this is what awards give you. In many respects it’s like an extension of the crit session, where you invite judgement and opinion on the work,” says creative director William Smart.

Winning awards will also “bring a level of exposure and validation to the practice profile”, he adds.

However, it is ongoing commitment that counts. “It’s the body of work that helps bring the right clients your way… I don’t believe that the prospect of awards in any way influences our design process though. I think it would be detrimental to the project to be thinking of trying to win a particular award rather than simply focusing on making the best possible project.”

Choi Ropiha (now CHROFI) was part of a team that won the international competition to redesign the public park Duffy Square and the TKTS ticket booth in New York’s Times Square (the project took from 1999 to 2008), resulting in a striking, tiered, red resin staircase providing roofing and a public space. Founding partner John Choi says, “We want to engage with our profession and peers. Also, when working on a project there is not much time to reflect on what it is that we are offering. With competitions, we have the space to look back at what we have done and debrief and reflect on that work.”

The firm supports “competition as a way of securing work, though it is very draining”. Choi also appreciates the acknowledgment that “design is a key part of the selection [process], so it does not put as much pressure on the fee. It is about what can generate the most value”.

“Winning an award does help you enter the [architectural] community – along with just getting older,” he adds, laughing.

“Duffy Square was a landmark project and it still does help. [Some firms] expend their energy hand-shaking with clients much more than we do. That has never been part of our approach. You make yourself known. Doing this through awards is something we are comfortable with and makes us feel culturally more aligned to the profession.”

Amelia Holliday and Isabelle Toland, as directors of the practice Aileen Sage (a combination of their middle names), with urban development strategist, Michelle Tabet, won the competition to become creative directors of the Australian Exhibition at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale. The Pool: Architecture, Culture and Identity in Australia brought together creative, cultural, academic, technical and engineering experts in a collaboration that also included pool memories from the likes of Ian Thorpe, Tim Flannery, Romance was Born, Christos Tsiolkas and Hetti Perkins.

“This association with Australia drew people in who would not necessarily be that interested in arts and culture or architecture,” says Aileen Sage (Holliday and Toland echo each other’s thoughts so much, AR hopes they do not feel it is a disservice to quote them as the practice itself). “We like to bring architecture into a broader public conversation, so it does not seem so elusive or detached from reality.”

The project and collaboration, albeit requiring “a huge amount of time and energy… gave us a national profile, from being a very young practice to developing an interesting national network. Architects acted as mentors, gave us advice and were supportive”.

The directors “push and challenge each other”. Aileen Sage has entered more competitions since and its directors believe it gets something out of each of them. “You build on discussions and the network of people you are talking to.”

Shaun Carter, founding architect of Carter Williamson Architects and former chapter president of the Australian Institute of Architects New South Wales, says, “If you are designing something you believe in that gets awards, it is affirmation and confirmation that what you are doing is thought of in that way. You need to have a point of difference in the general market, so a bunch of architects chooses to operate in what I call the upper 20 percent, because that is what you like to do and that is your pitch for added value.

“If you are a practice that constantly gets shortlisted and wins awards, you have a pedigree of design excellence. It’s either in your DNA as a practice or it is not. I encourage everyone to strive [to win an award] because that would suggest that everyone is doing the best possible work. I think of it as just like marketing. It’s a business so you make a business decision.”

How to make the most of entering competitions

  • Decide how important competitions and awards are to your marketing strategy.
  • Assess the kudos of winning against the time it takes to produce an entry that does the project, and your firm, justice.
  • Enjoy affirmation of your design approach, but do not expect a raising of your profile to result in a flood of commissions.
  • Consider what will be your reaction to the increasing recognition from awards and competitions.
  • The longer you are in the profession and the more experience you gain, you are likely to win bigger commissions, be able to charge higher fees and get more commercial work if you wish. Alongside this natural progression though, add a trajectory that results from your higher profile.

This article originally appeared in AR156 – available online and digitally through Zinio.

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