The turning of the year brings a flurry of awards cascading through the media. At the same time, some critics accuse architectural culture of being self-congratulatory and superficial. Despite the naysayers, positive attention is warranted, for this year’s winners include admirable choices by distinguished juries representing the Aga Khan Award for Architecture and the AIA (the Pritzker and the Praemium Imperiale come later in the year). Likewise, the announcements demand a moment’s pause: While we architects may build our buildings well, if left to our own resources, we have a hard time; our own words and pictures routinely fail to tell the tale.

Few sponsors understand that fact better than the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, which bases its judgments each three years on a complex matrix of criteria. A rigorous process determines the winners, including site visits and analysis by a skilled reviewer, and final determination of the winners by a master jury. This year seven projects were chosen from around the world, having satisfied the criteria of social utility, craft, even iconic value, and design excellence. One choice among the seven, which consists of only three rooms, illustrates the complexity inherent in the selections, and why we need programs like this one.

The village of Gando, in the African republic of Burkina Fasso (formerly Upper Volta, on Africa’s Ivory Coast), lies far off the tourist map. Its first citizen to acquire a higher education abroad, the architect Diébédo Francis Kéré returned from Germany to design a locally constructed, contemporary primary school for his birthplace. The award by the master jury recognized its “clarity,” “humble means and materials,” and “transformative value.”

Left, however, to float in the larger sea of newsprint, critics would likely ignore the project for its modesty and obscurity. Fortunately, the Aga Khan group has elevated and honored this tiny structure, explaining the Gando school to the larger world, along with six other prizewinners with compelling stories to tell. Traditional publicity would have left most of these projects unsung.

One award for an individual’s lifetime contributions to architecture should be an easier message to communicate. When that individual is Santiago Calatrava, recipient of the AIA’s Gold Medal for 2005, the evidence lies around us, in places as multidimensional as Valencia’s City of Science and Athens’s Olympic complex, or as singular as the architect’s latest bridges in the Netherlands. The polymath Calatrava, combining art, engineering, and architecture, has emerged as a designer at the height of his powers admired for sculptural structures that, like him, blend art and science.

A visit to one of his projects, which are almost surreal in their poetic realization, affects the visitor emotionally and intellectually, provoking myriad deeper associations and internal dialogue. The Milwaukee Museum of Modern Art, for example, spans the area between the city and the lakefront in an engineering and imaginative leap that defies the printed page.

Awards can open the door to experiencing architecture. The AIA Gold designation should excite inquiry and scrutiny by people who might never catch a train at Calatrava’s Zurich railway station, and perhaps persuade others to seek his work out. While visitors may not clamber to reach remote locations in Yemen or sub-Saharan Africa, sites of two of the Aga Khan Award recipients, by publishing books and encouraging film and digital media, the awards demonstrate that architecture populates a real, three-dimensional universe, and that design changes not only the landscape, but human lives. Yes, awards can be superficial, self-referential, or uninspired. Architecture, however, runs deeper, and this year, in a superb cluster, the awards prove it.