Delivering the good

Our new MacEwen Award will celebrate architecture for the common good

It’s an issue that’s never off the agenda but which has been growing with the economic recovery: how should architects do more than merely provide a design and co-ordination service in return for money, but actively seek to make a better society? We know that this is what architects are, or can be, particularly good at. I put it this way back in July: ‘Architects have all the skills necessary to make a better world, but we need to keep saying and doing it… architecture is for everyone, not the few. Let’s remember that.’ 

Pious words of course, easy to say but (to risk a clunking truism) the very point of saying this is that it’s easy to forget – especially at a time of relative boom when you may even be in the rare and not necessarily fortunate position of having more work than you can easily handle. The size of this issue of the RIBAJ – our largest for years – is in itself a significant economic indicator since we are as yoked to the overall performance of the construction industry as you are. So it’s a good time to take stock. Is what you are doing in the best interests of everyone, not just the bottom line for you and your client?  What about the community at large? Can you do better than regulations, better than imposed planning requirements, design something that does considerably more than respond to the functional requirements of the brief? 

I don’t just want you to nominate projects but to tell me what you think of the idea

For us, here’s the next step: in this issue (see page 87 and we launch the RIBAJ MacEwen Award: Architecture for the Common Good. We want to identify and celebrate projects that, in the old phrase, produce the greatest good for the greatest number: that have a deliberately wider public benefit. By doing this, we raise obvious questions. How on earth do you assess this benefit? What is the ‘common good’? How political is this, exactly? I’m grateful to have been given the perfect response to such entirely reasonable questions by architect Jeremy Till, head of Central St Martins and a campaigner for architectural ethics, when I floated the idea of the MacEwen Award with him and suggested that aesthetics should be in the mix: ‘Personally I think that you should make social impact the key criterion – and if challenged, say that this is in no way more measurable than aesthetic delight,’ he said. ‘If you start saying the scheme has to “look good” as well, then you get into all the arguments about what is “good”.’

Fair point – in the judging of conventional architecture awards we are always comparing apples and pears anyway. Aesthetically, it’s a deucedly subjective business and I’m perfectly aware that our judging of the MacEwen Award will be no less so. But though I sometimes like to champion the ‘ugly’ as being frequently interesting, and take the line that ‘beauty’ is overrated and prone to faddery, I’m sure we cannot fail to be influenced, consciously or not, by aesthetics also.

The spirit of the MacEwen Award is the spirit of collaboration – between professions as well as between architect and public. In that spirit, I don’t just want you to nominate projects for it but to tell me what you think of the idea –