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Maria Smith

Maria Smith follows her intuition

It's lovely to get an award. I've had a few in my time and it's very gratifying. It also feels poo to enter an award, or even be shortlisted or nominated, and then not win.

It's easy to feel that awards, especially long standing, respected awards, represent an objective measure of greatness. We tend to value the objectivity of the system more when we're winning than when we're not, but still, we want to believe the awards mean something real. It's natural then, when someone surprising wins an award, or someone you were expecting to win doesn’t, to feel outrage. We take this very personally and spring into action. What is considered of the very highest calibre matters to us, after all, it’s what we're all apparently striving for. When it doesn't ring true, it deeply unsettles us and we get caught up in these emotions, mount a revolution in angry tweets, bitchy articles and pressure our networks to sign a petition. But in the ecstatic throes of rage, we can loose sight of what these perceived 'injustices' are telling us.

So yes, I’m talking about A House for Essex. But I’m also talking about Assemble winning the Turner prize and Boaty McBoatface, the winning entry in a public competition to name the NERC's new polar-research vessel. To caveat, I love the work of both Assemble and FAT, you might even say that I feel they 'deserve' the Turner and Stirling prizes, but given the circumstances, I don’t think they should get them.

Part of my discomfiture around Assemble winning the Turner was that they were being used: used by the art world as a protest against itself, some form of collective but confused dissatisfaction with itself lashing out against the art world's contemporary value systems by voting in an incongruous winner – Boaty McBoatface style. I wished Assemble had somehow been able to articulate this and turn down the prize with an elegant slap in the face, but they didn't; they were disappointingly gracious and in so doing failed to highlight a critical misalignment.

As all good sweep-it-under-the-rug idioms tell us, this sort of papering over the cracks only delays our having to deal with ever deepening fissures. So now it presents again as A House for Essex not being given a RIBA Award. Indignation proliferated across my Twitter and Facebook feeds like a flash flood, support deployed, petitions launched; the impetus was to correct the mistake, realign the future with our image of a fitting fate. But wait!

Indulge me a moment, permit me to pose a hypothesis. Let’s allow that we have here two systems afoot for deciding whether a project is great: a political system (awards procedures) and intuitive systems (individuals’ feeling of what is right). Both involve the collation and computation of swathes of information to return a judgement, however the political system is externalised and rationalised in order to make it explicitly ‘fair’ and the intuitive system is unaccountable. Just as armed gunmen at airports reassure us of our safety, the processes of the political system reassure us that the system is fair; but its cumbersome bureaucracies leave it vulnerable to becoming obsolete, to perpetuate a system that stops working when the information it is processing evolves beyond it. Inversely, the intuitive system is by its very nature obscure (if intuition is the ability to act on, but not understand the aggregation of multitudes of tiny information points) and thereby unaccountable, however what makes intuition so powerful and reliably relevant, is the way that it automatically co-evolves with the information it is processing.

Can we think of A House for Essex not getting an RIBA Award as fabulous news?

Is it possible then, that the misalignment between the result returned by the political system (awards procedures) and the intuitive system (the collective outrage of all my Facebook and Twitter chums) is revealing that the individuals have evolved away from the political system to such an extent that the political system in place is no longer usable? Is it wild to suggest that the RIBA (and other) awards systems are no longer fit for shaking out our collective idea of what constitutes greatness?

Granted, perhaps my Facebook and Twitter networks are a non-representative sub-group. Perhaps A House for Essex rightly didn’t win a RIBA award because it’s a kinky media splash of the sort that shouldn't be encouraged in a world that urgently needs all our attention to be turned to the sensible speedy deployment of efficient housing. But what if they’re not?

What if they’re an intelligent, talented, aware group picking up on an incongruity between what the political award systems are accolading and what our community really esteems. If this is true, it’s selling this intuition short to scream bias or jealousy or corruption or blame some other anomalous factor for returning a mistaken result that we should quickly patch up. If we follow this impulse to correct the mistake of a broken system, then aren’t we preventing the system from evolving? Aren’t we missing the opportunity to attend to an important misalignment and in so doing delaying an inevitable crisis that will only become more painful the longer we leave it?

Can we think of A House for Essex not getting an RIBA Award as fabulous news? Well done architecture world for having the courage to cry out in pain. I understand the desire to acknowledge the project, but can we think of awards, not as a mechanism for delivering personal accolades, but as a litmus test for the relevance of our system to its players?

Stuart Heritage wrote an extraordinary article in the Guardian about Boaty McBoatface and how it was so wrong to overrule Boaty’s big win. ‘Admittedly, calling a boat Boaty McBoatface was a bad idea, voted for by idiots,’ sounded Heritage’s rallying cry, ‘But it was our bad idea. It was the British character writ large.’ Rejecting Boaty McBoatface is yet another example of a concealing patch, hiding the deep rift between what we think and what we’re supposed to think. We should have worn it on our sleeve, marked it down in history, been brave enough to know it was time to do something radical.  We couldn’t do it for Boaty. Can we do it for A House for Essex? Can the glory of A House for Essex NOT winning a RIBA Award be a beautiful manifestation of the duplicity of our time?


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