Annie Thao Vy Nguyen (Étudiante) + Jean-Pierre Chupin, Ph.D., September 27 2023
architectural-mediations, awards-of-excellence, categories, categories-2, prix-dexcellence


In this post we share some thoughts on updating the architectural excellence awards evaluation framework in light of the abolition of the Ordre des Architectes du Québec (OAQ) awards categories in 2023. If definitions of exemplary architecture evolve over time, and if awards of excellence are used as indicators of exemplarity, how should evaluation frameworks evolve to limit bias, limit categorization effects and thus ensure fairness and openness? In essence, this is the question that a number of Canadian awards organizers have been asking themselves in recent years. Such is the case of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada and its Research and Innovation Award, which, in response to disciplinary changes, now recognizes not only technological innovation, but also innovation and exemplarity in research and teaching. Similarly, the Canadian Architect Award now includes a “social equity and sustainable development” component in its evaluation criteria, in addition to asking candidates to present energy performance models[1].

The Ordre des architectes du Québec is not to be outdone. A press release dated March 15, 2023 announced a major change in the evaluation framework for the Prix d’excellence en architecture: neither more nor less than the abolition of award categories. The magnitude of this change lies in the rupture it creates: the Prix d’excellence en architecture, awarded since 1978, had all included award categories since 1990[2]. This decision would have been taken “in order to encourage the nomination of projects that are more modest or more difficult to categorize, and with the aim of making a greater number of projects eligible (…) to highlight the exemplarity of achievements, regardless of location, use, scale, complexity or resources mobilized[3]“.  This approach signals a desire to update the evaluation framework in the face of new definitions of exemplarity in architecture.

While we understand the desire for openness, no specific examples of these “unconventional” projects are given. An examination of past editions reveals a notion that was entitled “out-of-category works”.  From 2017 to 2022,[4] OAQ defines these projects as any work that “does not correspond to any of the previous categories (i.e. the other established categories)”[5] . The winning projects can be classified into two types: either outdoor developments/public squares, or art installations and conceptual works. Specifically, the “out of category” winners for 2022, 2021 and 2017 are outdoor developments, the projects being, respectively, Expérience chute by Daoust Lestage, a pavilion and footbridge at Chutes-Montmorency (2022), Patinoire couverte du parc des Saphirs by ABCP architecture (2021) and Place des gens de mer et le parcours insulaire by Bourgeois Lechasseur architectes (2017). As for the 2020 and 2017 winners, the “non-category works” are art installations, the projects being Installation Le Parloir – L’empreinte by Alain Carle Architecte (2020) and Immeubles infinis by Jean-Maxime Labrecque (2017)[6].

If unconventional projects are made up of unusually award-winning typologies, such as outdoor landscaping and artistic installations, do we still find this type of project following the dissolution of the award categories? Can we already see this change as a real step in the direction of definitions concerned with both social equity and sustainable development? The list of finalists for the 2023 Prix d’excellence serves as a first, albeit insufficient, clue, as there is no outdoor development or artistic installation, and the 21 projects are divided up according to some of the categories from previous editions: administrative and commercial buildings, cultural buildings, industrial buildings, public institutional buildings, multi-family residential buildings, heritage enhancement, single-family residential buildings in urban environments and single-family residential buildings in natural environments[7]. Only one of the 21 finalists could be considered less conventional in its commission. Les Studios du PAS, by L. McComber and InForm, whose residential complex typology serves the complex social program of affordable housing “for seniors living in great precariousness or who have experienced homelessness”[8], stands out from the other projects. It seems more difficult to evaluate within its typology; if we compare it to the only other finalist residential project, Vivre 1 by ACDF Architecture, it is difficult to weigh them up because of its distinct social program.

The fact remains, however, that this project does not feature in the 2023 awards, and the finalists are perfectly classifiable in the categories of previous editions, with three of the ten projects consisting of single-family residences in the high-profile Montreal boroughs of Rosemont and Plateau, without the current definitions of exemplarity, rooted in values of social equity and sustainability, being mobilized. It is too early to draw any conclusions, but it is safe to say that repealing the award categories may not have had the expected impact.

The OAQ states in its announcement that one of the aims of abolishing the award categories is to “allow a greater number of projects to be eligible[9]“. However, despite the fact that the list of evaluation criteria seems sharper and closer to current values, the elements required in the application file, the eligibility criteria and the composition of the jury remain based on the same principles. The 2023 Prix d’excellence evaluation guide mentions that the evaluation criteria are more reflective of architects’ involvement “in inclusivity (including universal accessibility) and in the ongoing socio-ecological transition, in the wake of the OAQ’s 2022-2025 Strategic Plan and the recent Politique nationale de l’architecture et de l’aménagement du territoire (PNAAT)[10] . New criteria such as building durability, inclusiveness and universal accessibility, and life-cycle cost[11] have been introduced. Under the guide’s evaluation criteria, it is explained that “the jury will pay particular attention to these aspects and to their transposition in the projects submitted for assessment”[12] , but it is hard to understand how criteria such as building durability and inclusiveness and universal accessibility can be measured rigorously when applications are only assessed by a text submitted by candidate architects, accompanied by drawings and photographs[13]. Eligibility criteria still require projects to be completed very recently, with any submission for the 2023 awards having to be a project “completed between January 1, 2022 and December 31, 2022”[14], effectively hindering a full assessment of projects’ impact over the medium to long term. How can new criteria such as “lived experience” or “health and comfort” be assessed when the jury is made up of four architects and an expert in a complementary field[15]? The representation of users and citizens in this assessment of architectural quality is virtually non-existent.

So, despite the new criteria, the Prix d’excellence evaluation framework lacks rigor, and the abolition of award categories is not in itself a sufficient gesture to bring it up to date. Beyond the abolition of award categories, it is important to reflect on the implications of judging quality without appropriate categories. In practice, the absence of categories risks undermining the definition of exemplarity, blurring our understanding of it, for if prizes are already more ambiguous markers of exemplarity than architectural competitions (candidates in a competition being subject to a common mandate and constraints enabling deliberation by comparison)[16], our understanding of exemplarity through architectural prizes becomes even more fluid when there is no longer any framework ensuring the rigor of comparisons. How are we to understand that a concert hall wins the Prix d’excellence against a regional elementary school, a waterside green space and an urban arena? And if there aren’t enough concert halls produced in 2023, shouldn’t we wait a few years to compare not only in the logic of a typology, but also in the value of the number of years, in the test of time?

What can we say about the deliberation process, which is bound to become more arbitrary within the jury? The deliberation process, which is already not very quantitative and objective, in addition to being carried out by a small number of professionals, becomes less precise and less sharable. The jury is no longer obliged to highlight the exemplary nature of projects in less conventionally awarded categories such as industrial buildings, for example. It runs a greater risk of highlighting the same type of architectural value, in the same award categories, biased by (individual and professional) definitions of what constitutes an exemplary building. Finally, it remains to be demonstrated that juries are no longer impressed by the graphic and visual quality of the documents provided, which are often more controlled in large-scale projects, if only for budgetary reasons.

It is therefore possible that the abolition of award categories is not the most democratic solution to meet the expressed intentions of fairness and openness. Other types of change could perhaps highlight the value of a greater variety of projects. We are thinking here of the inclusion of testimonials from users’ experiences of the projects submitted, rather than online votes used only for the People’s Choice Award[17], which could help update the evaluation framework in line with current principles rooted in social value, equity and sustainability. Perhaps it is also time to move from a call for nominations to a citizen nomination process. This would necessarily produce a greater variety of candidates and therefore award-winning projects, and these projects would reflect a more diversified definition of exemplarity, since the nomination of projects by users would ensure that real-life experience is taken into account, with testimonials that are sometimes more personal and less nourished by expert jargon.

These few remarks serve no other purpose than to confirm the complexity of the issue of updating architectural award evaluation frameworks in line with changing definitions of exemplarity. Implementing effective change will undoubtedly require an openness to dialogue with users, a questioning of the evaluation tools at our disposal, and an openness to the potential of what these tools contain. The fact that over time, architectural awards have undergone an almost standardized rigidification of evaluation methods is not the main problem behind the exponential growth of architectural awards, as the studies collected in our book The Rise of Awards in Architecture (2022) have shown[18]. Rather, we need to think about ways of updating these methods of evaluation and comparison, by refining criteria that will meet the expectations not only of professionals and experts, but also of users and citizens.

[1] Elsa Lam, “Editorial: The Value of Awards,” Canadian Architect, December 1, 2022, https://www.canadianarchitect.com/editorial-the-value-of-awards/.

[2] “Les prix de l’O.A.Q. 1990,” ARQ : la revue des membres de l’Ordre des architectes du Québec, December 1990, p.11, https://numerique.banq.qc.ca/patrimoine/details/52327/2689699?docsearchtext=arq%20prix%20d’excellence%201990.

[3] “People’s Choice Award finalists revealed,” March 15, 2023, p.5, https://kollectif.net/app/uploads/2023/03/communiquevotepublic_pea2023_final.pdf. Our translation.

[4] “OAQ – HISTORY – AREA.” AREA. Accessed September 1, 2023. https://architecture-excellence.org/fr/oaq-historical/. Our translation.

[5] Rules of participation and operation (2021), p.3, https://www.oaq.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/PEA_2022_regle_VF.pdf. Our translation.

[6] “OAQ – HISTORY – AREA.” AREA. Accessed September 1, 2023. https://architecture-excellence.org/fr/oaq-historical/.

[7] Ibid.

[8] “Projet lauréats 2023,” Ordre des architectes du Québec, accessed August 28, 2023, https://www.oaq.com/ordre/prix/prix-dexcellence-en-architecture/prix2023/.

[9] “People’s Choice Award finalists revealed,” March 15, 2023, p.5, https://kollectif.net/app/uploads/2023/03/communiquevotepublic_pea2023_final.pdf. Our translation.

[10] Rules of participation and operation (2022), p.5, https://www.oaq.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/PEA_2023_regles-participation_VF.pdf. Our translation.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Rules of participation and operation (2022), p.7, https://www.oaq.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/PEA_2023_regles-participation_VF.pdf.

[14] Rules of participation and operation (2022), p.4, https://www.oaq.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/PEA_2023_regles-participation_VF.pdf.

[15] Rules of participation and operation (2022), p.6, https://www.oaq.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/PEA_2023_regles-participation_VF.pdf.

[16] Georges Adamczyk, Jean-Pierre Chupin, and Carmela Cucuzzella, Rise of Awards in Architecture (Vernon Art and Science Inc., 2022), p.53.

[17] Rules of participation and operation (2022), p.10, https://www.oaq.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/PEA_2023_regles-participation_VF.pdf.

[18] Jean-Pierre Chupin, Carmela Cucuzzella and Georges Adamczyk, The Rise of Awards in Architecture (Vernon Art and Science Inc., Wilmington, 2022), p.71.