Gold may not tarnish, but it can wear thin. When the American Institute of Architects failed to award a Gold Medal this December, it raised questions about the status of the honor, a valuable institute asset. Despite a decade of innovation and arresting architecture, 2003 will pass with no medalist, prompting the rhetorical question, “Was no architect worthy?” The time has come to revisit the award, to analyze the message it conveys, its selection method, and to probe its hardiness.
Since 1907, when the institute conferred its highest honor on Sir Aston Webb, RA, the winners’ list has grown to include an incomparable roster. In 2002, Tadao Ando joined a canon of architectural saints including McKim, Lutyens,Wright, Le Corbusier, Gropius, the Saarinens, Sullivan, Aalto, and Mies van der Rohe. Who could argue with such choices?
Other groups, however, are chipping away at Institute Gold. The intervening years have witnessed a proliferation of awards programs, notably the Pritzker Prize, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Design Award, Japan’s Praemium Imperiale, and The Aga Khan Award for Architecture. All confer honor; all command media attention, strongly competing for the limelight with the Gold Medal, the AIA’s long-established First Prize. What do these groups offer and how do they deliberate?
Most employ distinguished third-party juries, reaching beyond the profession to include critics, educators, even distinguished patrons, thus broadening the reach outside intraprofessional concerns. Typically, their juries travel to visit each candidate’s work, as do jurors for the AIA’s own Honor Awards. The Aga Khan goes one better than most, sending professional evaluators to project sites to conduct postoccupancy analyses and then pass their findings on to a deliberative body for final determination. The Praemium Imperiale gives the most money (roughly $150,000); the Pritzker seems apt at identifying emerging international design talent.
No stones need be cast. The AIA has a blue-ribbon history of professional management of its honors and awards efforts, including this magazine’s partnership with the institute, the Business Week/Architectural Record Awards. The Gold Medal, however, seems to suffer from a structural anomaly, looking inward, rather than outward, for direction and approval.
Uniquely for this award, the AIA relies on its board of directors to evaluate and select the winner. Letters of support accompany the nominations, which are managed by a board advocate, who makes two presentations of each nominee’s qualifications. Revamping of the selection system should include examining this process.
2003 president Thompson Penney, FAIA, and the institute have taken an important step toward improvement by calling for a Secretary’s Advisory Committee to reevaluate all AIA awards, including the Gold Medal. It is Penney’s intention that all awards represent and reinforce “what the AIA and the profession values.” That may be a long and demanding process.
The exercise will prove worthwhile, however, if it provokes systemic change for the Gold. The advisory committee could begin by reexamining the published criteria, which sound vague and archaic. This, the institute’s highest honor, demands of the winners evidence of “great depth … great breadth,” as well as recognition for the “quality of his/her own products.” Fine, but missing are many of the values we give lip service to today. Which deserve codifying? Which seem right for this year, but apt to fade? Debate lies ahead.
Like the heir of a valuable bequest, the new leadership of the AIA has both an opportunity and an obligation to make hard decisions about the Gold Medal, including discussions on who determines the winner and why. The time is ripe to pick up the Gold Medal and polish it for another century. Whatever the outcome of the deliberations, the medal should not be left sitting around unused: Gold is too valuable to leave unspent.