It is a significant missed opportunity for architects and the public not to provide this form of recognition annually. It’s also a big economic mistake.
Most processes of AIA governance and decision-making work quite well. For instance, the nation’s strongest professional design body is pretty good at naming the AIA Firm of the Year every year. And the AIA Honor Awards program is a well-run model for other organizations to emulate. However, we believe that the AIA Gold Medal program needs an overhaul.
The Gold Medal was established in 1907 as the highest award that the organization gives. The first award went to Sir Aston Webb of the United Kingdom and the last in 2002 to Tadao Ando of Japan.
This year, however, the AIA Board could not agree that anyone deserved the honor and after a frustrating process the Board left Washington without making a selection (the late Sam Mockbee came the closest in their process). Looking back in history, it’s not all that unusual for AIA to skip a year or two. Since the award was founded it has not been given a total of 40 times. Contrast this with the Royal Institute of British Architects Gold Medal, which has been granted every year since 1848 except once—due to the death of Queen Victoria in 1901. That first year it was given to Charles Robert Cockerell.
It is a significant missed opportunity for architects and the public not to provide this form of recognition annually. It’s also a big economic mistake. Because it is a prestigious world prize, newspapers and magazines here and abroad report the Gold Medal news. Magazines often devote covers to the work of the Gold Medal recipient. This is editorial space that cannot otherwise be bought. But that space still has economic value to be considered. (Keep in mind that a six-page color spread in a major architectural publication is worth more than $60,000 and every column inch in the New York Times is worth more than $787 if it could be bought.) One estimate would place the economic decision of not giving the AIA Gold Medal at around a $1,800,000 missed opportunity. Run the numbers.
The AIA Board is certainly the right body to decide who should receive the award. It should not be delegated to a separate jury or committee. But the process itself should produce consistent quality, pride, and even inspiration. The solution is just inches away.
Here is a modest plan to elevate the award: The AIA should name a Gold Medal advisor or secretary who will guide the process for the Institute. The nominating process should be open to any person, architect or not. All nominations should come to the Institute’s Secretary within a specified time frame, and then the advisor should facilitate a two-stage process. The first stage should bring all nominations to the Board where three finalists are selected and the second stage should determine the recipient at the Institutes next policy meeting. The advisor would present candidates without prejudice.
The nominees themselves should play no role in preparing their binder presentation and they should not be asked to self promote in any way. They need not even know initially that they have been nominated. Quite logically, a fair elimination process can be put in place resulting in an impressive decision for all.
We have analyzed the years where no award has been given since 1950. We were amazed to discover how many quality candidates there were in each of those years and just for the fun of it we have put forward a list on “what might have been” had the AIA awarded the Gold Medal annually.
—James P. Cramer