Posted in practice
on November 2, 2015 2:43 pm EST
What Do Awards Mean, Anyway?
The lights. The podium. The handshakes. The trophy. The moment when you get to explain why you do what you do, in the way that only you can do it (and thank those who helped). Is it worth all the commotion?
Loads of fun, assuredly. But what does it really mean, after the after-glow? Those who don’t have any would probably say “not a whole lot.” And of course any firm whose lobby features a glass-front case loaded with gold-plated and crystal abstract sculptural forms and inscribed plaques of various shapes and sizes would take the opposite position.
I’d say it depends on the award. Let’s look at four aspects. An award has 1.) a sponsor/donor, 2.) a group of candidates/competitors, 3.) a recipient or winner and 4.) an audience. Without the last, an award is truly meaningless. I could design and print a piece of paper certifying myself as, oh how about “2015’s Most Trenchantly Insightful Business Columnist.” I could even frame it and hang it on my office wall, take a photo and put it on my website, broadcast it via social media. But will anyone care, or even notice? Will it make me feel better about my work, or inspire me to reach even higher and more consistent levels of excellence? Here’s a trenchant, insightful answer: no.Who IS it really for?
The audience is vital, not only to the recipients but also to the sponsors. Awards are created for many reasons, but one of those is always to boost the profile of the sponsoring organization. The larger the scope of the award and the longer it has been available, the more prestige accrues to both the granting organization and the recipient. You probably know, for example, that the AIA Gold Medal recognizes “a significant body of work of lasting influence on the theory and practice of architecture,” that it was established in 1907, has been awarded annually since 1922, and that the candidate pool includes practicing architects worldwide. So the Gold Medal is a great honor for the recipient, and at the same time it lends credibility to the AIA’s claim to be a standard-setting organization for the profession. For those wanting to hire an architect, what better place to start? That in turn makes it worth your while to pay membership fees, obtain a fellowship (Frank Lloyd Wright was the only AIA Gold Medal recipient ever without FAIA after his name), attend conferences, use contract documents, etc.
Bigger and more centrally located buildings attract more attention and more competitors and they deliver more recognition and prestige to the winners: they mean more to everyone concerned.
That “significant body of work” takes most of a career to accumulate. There is competition involved, but it’s indirect and long term: you build a reputation, you recruit mentors and allies, you maintain relationships, and recognition happens near the end of your long and winding road. In the course of such a career, recipients of recognition awards like the AIA Gold Medal will have also won competitive awards. They might have competed for both cash awards and projects—the right to have a design actually built. Bigger and more centrally located buildings attract more attention and more competitors, and they deliver more recognition and prestige to the winners: they mean more to everyone concerned.What does it garner for you?
Competing for awards is part investment, part gamble. A competitive award can mean more business for your firm—if you win. If not, it can mean spending a lot of unbilled hours. But even if you don’t win, those hours aren’t totally wasted. In a design competition, the client is not looking over your shoulder while you think and draw. It’s just you, the design challenge, and whatever imagination and creativity you can bring to the solution. Obviously you can’t spend all your time on competitions, but if you pick wisely, you could find that this type of work enhances your ability to solve problems for the “everyday” clients that keep the doors open and the lights on.
The AIA Gold Medal is an individual award, but design competitions are awarded to firms. If an individual award is given to a founder/owner, the distinction makes very little difference. But if the recipient is not an integral part of the firm, then the prestige and recognition associated with any award can walk right out the door and across the street, or across the country, to a competitor. Conversely, if your design for Firm X won a competition, it’s difficult to transfer that credibility to Firm Y. If you were to change jobs you’d have to start over again and win some more awards.