How Architecture Awards Matter and Why Winning Is About More Than the Prize Itself

Architizer’s editor sat down to articulate why architecture awards matter, and wound up the view of the A+Awards from her editor’s chair.

Hannah Feniak Hannah Feniak

Years before I ended up working here, I was drawn to Architizer’s A+Awards program. While all awards programs seek to celebrate industry professionals, Architizer’s A+Awards have always had the goal of democratization at their heart, and I could see how that played out on multiple levels. Now, from an editor’s chair, I have a closer perspective, of course, which helps to fill out my understanding of what truly sets Architizer’s A+Awards apart from other architectural awards programs.

This is linked to my belief that architecture awards do matter — and that winning an A+Award is about so much more than winning a prize. Winners join a community of designers who are leading a global culture of architectural excellence, setting standards that impact architecture’s users and designers throughout the entire year. Here’s a breakdown of how I see the A+Awards from my editor’s chair.

Fyrgani by AKA Architects, Sifnos Island, Greece | Jury Winner, 10th Annual A+Awards, Architecture +Color | Photo by Cathy Cunliffe

Democratizing the Profession

Architecture an inherently public profession; after all, the end product — buildings and space — are used every day by the wider population. Yet, as a highly technical industry, architecture is often seen as an elusive hybrid of art and engineering, shrouded in mystery to the people who it affects every day. By showcasing the best architecture to the world each year, the A+Awards program helps to recast architecture as a highly accessible profession; we supply readers and voters with ample images and resources to help pick out trends, identify successes and evaluate incredible design.

Meanwhile, since its founding in 2012, the A+Awards has fueled a fundamental shift in emphasis away from individual architects to the work of talented design teams, awarding firms based on their brilliant buildings rather than their brand. This is not to say that those considered “star architects” aren’t among the winners, of course, but that smaller firms are also considered with equal weight. In other words, spectacular projects, the ‘blockbusters’ of the architectural world, have an equal chance of winning an A+Award, along with the more ‘arthouse’ and ‘Indy’ projects around the world.

CME Center by Krueck Sexton Partners, Chicago, IL, United StatesJury Winner, 10th Annual A+Awards, Commercial Interiors (>25, 000 sq ft) Photo by Kendall McCaugherty, Hall + Merrick Photographers

Changing What Constitutes ‘Architecture’

Museums, libraries, private homes: Anyone who has studied architectural history knows that there are certain typologies that appear far more frequently in the architectural canon; this value system also informs the types of architects and firms who receive prizes on the global stage. Some typologies simply come with larger budgets or are more visible in the public eye and are therefore given more weight as representatives of society and culture. Yet, the built fabric is far more complex, as are the societies that these big-ticket buildings purport to represent.

For example, while architects have long championed the cause of social housing, such projects have not traditionally been viewed as the object of architectural accolades. Likewise, a well designed commercial space can transform a brand’s fortune, buoying the business and shaping customer experiences. Yet, commercial design has historically not been considered ‘Architecture’ equally when compared to larger cultural or civic projects.

Likewise, small architectural details often go unsung in other global awards programs. Innovative uses of age-old material. Ingenious workarounds for minuscule budgets. Architectural photography that helps bring an otherwise unseen, remote project to audiences around the world. That’s why Architizer’s A+Awards introduced the “plus” categories, breaking traditions of typologies and giving recognition to firms who specialize in smaller projects (like renovations and additions) that aren’t traditionally under the purview of architecture awards, but are more and more necessary in our rapidly changing world.

Meama Collect – Beach by Khmaladze Architects, Batumi, Georgia | Jury & Popular Choice Winner, 10th Annual A+Awards, Pop Ups & Temporary 

A Truly Global Program

At its heart, Architizer has always sought to connect and celebrate architects worldwide. Founded in the late aughts, Architizer’s mission was to harness the power of the digital age to democratize architecture, making it accessible to users and smaller firms in all corners of the globe; this aim was tied to a profound shift in the profession. Since the 1990s, architectural practice has become truly international. Whether it be global firms with multiple offices that cross borders and oceans, materials that circulate from continent to continent, or simply diffusion of inspiration the furtherest flung regions of the world — the sheer number of photos and plans of buildings from elsewhere that now find themselves in front of architects everywhere. Architizer’s A+Awards, celebrate, reflect and advance this radical circulation of architectural ideas.

Counting winners from over 100 different countries, the program is breaking architecture out of its geographic echo chamber, celebrating innovative firms from diverse regions around the world. For a long time, North American and Asian architects dominated industry media — and accolades such as the Pritzker Prize. Now, with a prestigious jury comprised of thought leaders from every continent, the 11th Annual A+Awards promises to be a truly global celebration, uncovering modern vernacular architecture designed by firms with an intimate understanding of their local region, culture and people, allowing designers to get their work in front of some of the brightest minds from around the world.

LIFE Campus by Vilhelm Lauritzen Architects, Lyngby, DenmarkPopular Choice, 10th Annual A+Awards, Architecture +Learning | Photo by Rasmus Hjortshøj

Publicizing the Public Side

Architizer’s A+Awards grew out of a simple yet firm belief that architecture is for everyone, on both sides of the building equation. On the one hand, we believe in celebrating the tireless work of architects who create remarkable spaces for diverse users. On the other hand, we believe in the idea that every single person must have the equal power to identify what makes an environment incredible, inside and out.

For a long time, the profession took a top-down view, assuming that the most highly regarded professionals were best equipped to judge the merits of urban and architectural design. Yet, this system allows the voices of a few individuals to speak for architects around the world. Instead, Architizer’s A+Awards are judged by an extensive and diverse jury of architectural thought leaders from around the world. Comprising 250 members representing a sought-after segment of design-savvy professionals — including distinguished luminaries from fields as diverse as fashion, publishing, product design, real estate development and tech — the program allows firms to get their work in front of some of the brightest minds worldwide.

This democratic vote selects one “Jury Winner” in each category, and is complimented by Architizer’s “great leveler” — an online voting system that allows anyone from the public to choose a “Popular Choice Winner” for each category as well. After all, buildings users, who spend over 85% of their days indoors, are also experts in architecture. Who better to judge the merits of completed projects?

Andermatt Concert Hall by Studio Seilern Architects, Andermatt, Switzerland | Jury Winner, 10th Annual A+Awards, Hall / Theater | Photo by Roland Halbe

Prizes Beyond Trophies

The A+Awards allows firms to prove that they are truly leaders in the profession; they will inspire the industry, pointing other professionals in the right direction. The Winners don’t simply obtain Miesian-inspired trophies to display in their office (although the trophies and book publication are fantastic material records of their success); their projects and design philosophies are also taken up as integral informants of Architizer’s editorial direction over the course of the following year. We offer our platform to our winners, helping to ensure that Architects’ voices heard in an industry that is often dominated by press releases.

In other words, Architizer is a platform for architects, by architects; for our community of readers and users, byt those who enter the Awards and/or upload their projects to our database. We offer winners myriad options for winners to utilize our platform, for example inviting firm partners to write op-eds about cutting edge activities in their practice, or to to speak at live events viewed by thousands; feature in article interviews; share project videos on our YouTube.

By building a global conversations based on the leadership of A+Awards winners, Architizer is disseminating knowledge and ideas that matter, like making sustainability integral to design. Every industry needs leaders, and Architizer’s A+Awards seek to make sure that the future of architecture is shaped democratically and to elevate the voices of those firms that come out on top. From my view behind the scenes, this is what the A+Awards mean to me.

Submit Your Project to the A+Awards

Top image: Zhengzhou Grand Theater by The Architectural Design and Research Institute of HIT, Zhengzhou, China | Popular Choice, 10th Annual A+Awards, Hall / Theater

Hannah Feniak Author: Hannah Feniak
Hannah Feniak is Architizer’s Managing Editor. When she’s not leading our talented team of writers and interviewing the industry’s most innovative designers, Hannah is likely to be found exploring the latest exhibition openings. A trained art historian and educator with a focus on architecture and urbanism, Hannah holds degrees from McGill University in Montreal and NYU.
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