11 July 2018

As the ABB LEAF Awards enter their 17th year, we sit down with Kai-Uwe Bergmann of Bjarke Ingels Group and Katrin Förster, global key account manager of event headline partner ABB, to talk about how the focus of the awards has evolved, the importance of an international outlook in the nominee selection process, and the true significance of architectural prizes for practices old and new.

What is the practical significance of an architectural prize? It depends on who you ask. For older firms, winning accolades can come as crucial validation for decades of important work. For newer practices, however, awards are opportunities, a fast track to greater recognition among the architectural community and – in an ideal world – more commissions.

“Awards are fantastically useful for a young offi ce that is trying to prove its mettle,” says Kai-Uwe Bergmann, a partner at the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), and one of the judges at this year’s ABB LEAF Awards. It is an important opportunity, he adds, for new practices to showcase their work among peers.

Katrin Förster, global key account manager at ABB, encourages any and all practices that are proud of their recent work to submit their designs for consideration. “Be brave and let the jury take a look,” she says. “As in life, it is about doing and not about hesitating.”

But make no mistake, says Bergmann: prizes don’t always translate into new work. They are a symptom of excellence – and only rarely its cause. “There are a few clients who use awards as a kind of decision-making means, or tool, to say, ‘These folks have attained these awards, therefore they must be good,’” he explains. “I would say that, in less than 10% of the client interactions I’ve had, awards have played a role in the decision to actually hire us.”

BIG ideas

He would know: Bergmann has been a partner at BIG since its foundation in 2005. Within a year, its design for the Helsingør Psychiatric Hospital won the World Architecture Festival Housing Award. Described as a “hamlet-like paradox” by the firm, the facility sits squat against the hilly landscape outside the local town, like a dragonfly resting on a lily pad. It was one of a number of prizes it won in the following years – including the Forum AID Award for Best Nordic Architecture, the Urban Land Institute Award of Excellence, and the International Architecture Award from the Chicago Athenaeum three times – that transformed BIG from a promising young fi rm into a global trendsetter.

“It’s an important factor,” states Bergmann, alluding to the attentions that prizes necessarily bring. “I think every award programme tries to, of course, get the word out. It’s always helpful. Exposure is good.”

Even so, the German-US architect is sceptical that the proliferation of awards has counted against the business’s effectiveness. “I would have to say that I find the entire landscape of awards has become less meaningful. Personally, I have awards fatigue.” Bergmann says, as everyone from blogs and conferences have weighed in with their own prizes.

A unique award

Where the ABB LEAF Awards stand out, he adds, is its focus. Bergmann has been impressed by the growing number of categories celebrating projects around the world – and not just in Western Europe and the US.

“It is actually a much more global awards programme than many others,” he stresses. “And I think that’s something that’s very important. There may be only a handful of programmes that have as far a global reach as the ABB LEAF Awards.”

It’s a sentiment that Förster finds herself in full agreement with. “We have the greatest international team of judges on board,” she says. Their presence is a reminder as to why ABB originally chose to sponsor the awards. “Here, we are able to show our admiration towards the work of architects, and give their projects a stage to be recognised and celebrated.”

The ABB LEAF Awards has also stood out for its commitment to searching for outstanding examples of sustainable design, according to Förster. This fact is not only underscored by this year’s introduction of the ‘Best Regenerative Impact’ category, but also the design of the awards themselves. “Our trophies this year will again be specially designed,” she highlights. “They will be made of raw, heavy material, columns that are pleasing in an optic and haptic sense.”

She appreciates that last year’s ceremony will prove a tough act to follow. “Our brilliant lifetime award winner, Sir Peter Cook, gave us a lecture of thanks, and Bob Sheil [professor at The Bartlett School of Architecture at University College London] held the perfect laudation,” says Förster. “It was a fantastic, festive event – the ‘best ever’, to quote a few attendees.”

Lifetime achievement

This years’ ceremony will be held in the Marriott Hotel in Frankfurt, Germany, and will see Sir David Chipperfield honoured with the ABB LEAF Lifetime Achievement Award.

Responsible for projects that have included the Des Moines Public Library in Iowa, the US; the Turner Contemporary gallery in Kent, UK; and the Museo Jumex in Mexico City, Chipperfield’s designs are stripped back, austere, and seem to reach into the cultural memory of a site to return with ideas that seem to straddle its past, present and future.

Nowhere are these qualities more finely expressed than in the Neues Museum in Berlin, Germany, which is home to a wealth of ancient artefacts, including the famed bust of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti.

Completed in 1859, the site suffered extensive bomb damage during the Second World War and fell into disrepair under East German authorities. When Chipperfield was commissioned to restore the site in 1997, the architect chose to embrace its recent history as a ruin, building around the oldest parts of the structure, rather than imposing a new design. The result was a museum not simply restored, but healed.

Bergmann’s verdict of Chipperfield is short but sweet: “One of the best in the business.” He also sees the choice as highlighting a key opportunity for the ABB LEAF Awards to continue championing the work of practices beyond Europe and the US.

“I think we’re in an environment where many of the overlooked areas of the world could also benefi t LEAF,” says Bergmann. The awards should always look “for a Chipperfield of the Middle East, a Chipperfield of Africa or a Chipperfield of Asia. Someone who has the same high esteem, is making inroads, and is just not known to the Western media to the same degree as Chipperfield is.” That way, the ABB LEAF Awards can continue doing what it does best: recognising talent in architecture, wherever it may lie.

Chipperfield, 2018’s Lifetime Achievement Award winner, is perhaps best known in Germany for the Neus Museum, Berlin.
Bergmann (left) and Förster (right) champion the awards, believing they promote the best in the business.

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