And the award goes to…

Last November, Han Tumertekin’s elegant but straightforward design for a small summerhouse in Turkey with a total area of 150m2 shared a 500.000 USD award with other six projects from all over the world. One of the other recipients was the world’s second-highest building, the Petronas Towers of Cesar Pelli. What kind of an architectural award this might be, which can honour a tiny summerhouse with one of the biggest buildings in the world?

Aga Khan, a true lover of architecture, presented his own foundations’ architectural awards to seven projects in a spectacular ceremony organized in Delhi, India in November 2004. The Aga Khan Awards for Architecture aim to develop the quality of the physical environment in Muslim societies using improved architectural culture. As a selection criterion, the architect may belong to any community or religion the building has to be located in a Muslim country to be eligible. Europe may be unaware of this man’s love for architecture. His presence in North America is more visible than in Europe since he is one of the foremost supporters of academic programs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. However, the foundation’s headquarters is located in Switzerland. Put aside this ironic fact, it is also still a question in mind, whether the 27 years old award program had been well recognized even in Muslim countries. Some critics in Turkey believe that the Aga Khan Awards are insignificant tributes distributed to architects in Muslim societies, which are usually unable to show their architectural skills in the global scale media. Actually, the overall collection of the Aga Khan Award recipients finds little space in the critical history of architecture. However, this result might easily be connected to the media-billowed atmosphere of Western architectural criticism, which is often accused of being closed to the idea of the “other”. On the other hand, this award program’s weakest point is its religious preferences which are becoming more and more insignificant in global art and architectural criticism. Also, it is always a question in mind whether this elaborately crafted award system for architecture is really acting as a generator in Muslim societies to develop awareness for their own architectural culture and maintain self-improvement systems which can compete with the contemporary architectural production supported by European and American media tools.

To triumph over Aga Khan’s deep-rooted award program, the Holcim Foundation for Sustainable Construction, decided to put a 2 million USD award for Sustainable Architecture examples in September 2004, just two months before its rival’s award ceremony. This is the largest amount of money prize reserved for the celebration of architectural production so far. Even though sustainability is a vague term, the aim of this program is similar. However Holcim Award covers the overall globe rather than focusing on specific communities, which is the weak belly of the Aga Khan award.

Similar to these two awards, the European Union Architecture Awards (Mies van der Rohe Award) bases its award system on the finished works rather than the architects themselves. Its “emerging architect special mention” is remarkable for fostering new names to appear however the award recipient buildings mostly belong to those important key architects.

On the other hand, several awards are still being marketed as the most prestigious architectural awards in the world. The Pritzker Prize, with the Hyatt Foundation behind it, is still being counted as the most important award an architect may receive. The Pritzker family chose architecture as a field because of their enthusiastic concern for buildings due to their association with developing the Hyatt Hotels. However, another irony lies here, since Hyatt Hotels may hardly be counted as loyal clients for contemporary architectural production. One can easily claim that the Hyatt Foundation utilizes the star architect mechanism to undercover the existing architecturally insignificant building stock.

Another similar award is being presented from Japan, the Praemium Imperiale Award. This time a non-profit art association is awarding the star architect together with the key figures of other art branches such as music, sculpture or painting. These two awards are presented not for particular buildings, but to individuals for their excellence and personal achievements in profession, which form the constellations of our architectural community.

The award programs in architecture may vary and proliferate more in the next years. However, the question hangs whether they help to maintain a link with the architectural community and the rest of the world. Can we believe that all these awards bestowed to architects and buildings enhance the public belief in the value of “good” architecture? Or, do they secure the inaccessible aura of the architects and make the architectural profession an inconceivable area?

Published in A10 Magazine, Issue 3,  2005