Motivated to medal

A newly-designed research medallion has been added to the RIBA's long history of medals for awards

Why should it be that arguably the RIBA’s most important award be a medal at all, let alone ‘Royal’ or ‘Gold’? How does this speak to the realities of contemporary practice and what does it say about the values of our profession? Moreover, what does it say about the RIBA itself, about our brand and identity?

Medals – collecting and commissioning them – has been one of the Institute’s activities since its foundation.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the current incarnation of our Research Awards programme and we held an open competition for the design of a new President’s Medal for Research to sit alongside the existing Silver, Bronze and Dissertation medals presented this year on 2 December. 

  • Honorary Medal of the RIBA. Designed by T L Donaldson, 1836
    Honorary Medal of the RIBA. Designed by T L Donaldson, 1836
  • Pugin Studentship Medal. Designed by J T Foot, 1863. Awarded to J J Joass in 1893
    Pugin Studentship Medal. Designed by J T Foot, 1863. Awarded to J J Joass in 1893
  • RIBA Rome Scholarship Medal. Designer unknown, c.1936. Awarded retroactively to S R Pierce in 1921.
    RIBA Rome Scholarship Medal. Designer unknown, c.1936. Awarded retroactively to S R Pierce in 1921.

The brief was designed to be non-prescriptive. We wanted a medal – traditional, contemporary or somewhere in between – that communicated architectural research, knowledge and innovation, and which recognised its increasing importance in the activities of the Institute and the profession.

And we turned to our collection for inspiration – not just to provide historical examples for competitors but also to reflect on why it is we have this established tradition of awarding medals and what that might mean for our institutional identity.

Thanks to our founder, Professor Thomas Leverton Donaldson, medals have been part of our history since the very earliest days of the RIBA. ‘Medal-bitten’, in his own words, since encountering in his youth the Renaissance scholar Sebastiano Erizzo’s account of antique medals, Donaldson would himself later write an authoritative account of architectural medals, Architectura Numismatica, in 1859. For Donaldson, medals were a ‘rich treasury of reference’ for the ‘edifices and customs of the Greeks and Romans’. They were not, therefore, just of nerdy antiquarian and archaeological interest, but were transmitters of architectural knowledge; portable portals through which to understand the architecture of antiquity and the restoration of ancient buildings, which in turn were of such great inspiration for contemporary design to Donaldson’s own age. Donaldson also designed an early seal for the institute depicting the ‘Temple of Theseus’, a design that survived on the face of the Honorary Medal of the RIBA, awarded first in 1836, the dies for which were made by Benjamin Wyon. 

  • Uniface Silver Medal. Designed by Cecil Thomas, 1921. Awarded to Elsie Rogers in 1924.
    Uniface Silver Medal. Designed by Cecil Thomas, 1921. Awarded to Elsie Rogers in 1924.
  • The RIBA Street Medal. Designed by Langford Jones, c.1922. This is possibly the first impression of the medal.
    The RIBA Street Medal. Designed by Langford Jones, c.1922. This is possibly the first impression of the medal.
  • The RIBA Silver Medal for Measured Drawings. Designed by George Frampton, 1906. Awarded to Benjamin Stanley Tempest in 1927.
    The RIBA Silver Medal for Measured Drawings. Designed by George Frampton, 1906. Awarded to Benjamin Stanley Tempest in 1927.

And since the blazon of the Institute’s badge was set down in bylaws of 1837, it has provided constant inspiration for medallists, sculptors, designers and more recently branding experts – crowned lions, monkey-lions, Mycenaean lions, and a whole range of column types have at one time or another been part of our visual identity.

It is these two traditions that the new Research Medal reflects but in an unmistakably contemporary fashion. The winning submission, designed in partnership by established medallist, Nicola Moss, and Simon Beeson, a lecturer at Arts University Bournemouth, is a subtle yet complex interplay of the medal as a mediator of architectural knowledge and of a changing institutional identity. 

  • An Early Version of the Badge.
    An Early Version of the Badge.
  • The First Badge to be Generally Used. Designed in 1836-7 and in use until 1891.
    The First Badge to be Generally Used. Designed in 1836-7 and in use until 1891.
  • The Badge Designed by J H Metcalfe in 1891 and in General Use until 1931.
    The Badge Designed by J H Metcalfe in 1891 and in General Use until 1931.

‘Earth and Sky’ is described by the artists as ‘phenomenological in its rendering’. The labyrinth of the earth, a subtle allusion to the first architect of antiquity, Daedalus, is also a symbol of patience and endurance. The sky perhaps conjures an image of his son, Icarus: a warning against over-ambition. The medal is divided by a horizon – ‘a sharp line, representing both our perception of the world as we experience it and the abstract first line drawn on a plan or section, even the eye-level of our abstracted perspective’.

On its reverse, the medal features a reinterpretation of the RIBA badge – a lion and lioness no longer rampant guardant, aggressively facing the viewer, but now regardant, heads turned outwards toward the wider world. And instead of a column, a tree of knowledge, ripe with the fruit of endeavour, again deeply rooted – the tentacles of the roots answering the labyrinth form and earthliness of its flipside. The biconcave shape formed by the corresponding meeting of two convex forms on both sides of the medal invokes refraction in a diverging lens.

This is not, then, a medal for bowed heads, clasps or ribbons, but rather one to be touched, handled and mulled over – the design has a solemnity that invokes the intensity of research endeavour.

Next year marks the 180th anniversary of the award of the Institute’s first medal, given for an essay by George Godwin on the properties of concrete, which featured the seal designed by Donaldson. It provides an opportunity to reflect on this unusual and material aspect of our institutional archive – to rediscover the Banister Fletcher Medal, the Pugin Medal, the Soane Medal, the Godwin Bursary Medal and the Rome Scholarship Medal among many others. Our medal collection, still only partially catalogued, provides not only an exciting record of collaboration between the architectural profession and leading sculptors of the day – among them George Frampton and Langford Jones – but also maps the stories of the research, buildings and people that have contributed and continue to contribute to architectural practice. The new Research Medal takes this into the future when it is awarded on 2 December.