RIBA MEDALS 2011  -  Thursday December 1st, 2011
Results are in for the 2011 President’s Medals, and the decisions have been somewhat controversial: a CGI film based on the 80′s Brixton Riots and a silent temple space in India for women and children working in a noisy quarry. Discussion has mostly centred around Silver Medal winner (best Part 2 project) Kibwe Tavares (Bartlett) for what might be described as an “architectural film” titled Robots of Brixton.

I won’t comment on this, other than to say that I try to challenge the format of architectural projects as much as anyone (see Scatterbrain, my “architectural novella”), but I nonetheless feel there must be some limit — that is, for a project to remain architectural it must put the built environment at the fore, and employ unusual technique or narrative only to drive the ideas at the projects’ core.

It is questionable whether this is the case for Robots of Brixton, which as a kind of techno-allegory for social conflict resolution seems to feature architectural proposals only incidentally. Star Wars has some great speculative architecture, but it is not an architectural project, for the reason I have mentioned. My general comment would be that, whatever you think the architectural status of a film about robot race riots might be, at least RIBA is challenging mind-numbingly conservative ideas about the limit and scope of architecture. Actually, I don’t want to criticise RIBA too much, they have had quite a good track record of late in choosing progressive proposals (viz this, this and this).

However, it’s really the Bronze Medal (best Part 1 project) that I want to talk about, which went to the AA’s Basmah Kaki for her project An Acoustic Lyrical Mechanism. The student statement says:

“Located on the outskirts of the high-tech city Bangalore, the Silicon Valley of India, the mine employees [sic] a migrating caste – among them women and children – whose hearing is progressively damaged by the noise pollution endemic to their working conditions. An Acoustic Lyrical Mechanism creates a long-term strategy where sound and religious spaces offer relief, treatment and hope for the community of workers.

Crafted with the detail typically afforded to the manufacture of musical instruments, its internal spaces sit in contrast to its rough external setting. Like an Aeolian harp, the building is played by the wind, acoustically transforming the abrasive sounds of quarrying.”

In a nutshell, this project from one of the world’s most privileged schools (I should know, I study there) has decided to engage with one of the world’s poorest and most disadvantaged communities by proposing a musical temple to “acoustically transform the abrasive sounds of quarrying.” It’s a bit like tackling the Global Financial Crisis by proposing a janitors canteen in the City of London.

It demonstrates neither awareness of the economic, social and political contexts that caused this situation, nor is it critical of them. In short, there is a real poverty of aspiration in this project – made only the clearer for its juxtaposition next to the hyper-political Silver winner. In a hypothetical scenario the only limit on scale of intervention is the imagination and will of the student – here the scheme is obviously driven by whimsical imagery and the production of vague and atmospheric forms.

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