Awards – what are they good for?

Well, the short answer is quite a lot (purely a personal opinion, you understand). After reading Tim Richardson’s column in the November issue of the Garden Design Journal, I gave this a lot of thought. I have won the odd award in my time, so one could say my stance is biased, but read to the end and you can make up your own mind up.

Firstly, I think it is a pity that Tim fired from the hip without first waiting to see what the SGD awards had to offer, but let’s set that to one side. I was interested by his opinion, but I take a different view. If one ignores the over-the-top rhetoric and posturing (‘the simpering saps who have to go up and be pathetically grateful on the stages of corporate rent-outs in front of baying drunks’), then it seems to me that Tim’s main points are as follows:

  1. Awards ceremonies are principally a way for organisations to maintain power and influence.
  2. Awards are mainly given to those who have ‘been in some way useful or obliging to the presiding organisation’

Let’s tackle the second one first. Bowles & Wyer (my company) has won many BALI awards over the last ten years – certainly well into double figures. I would like to think the projects won their respective awards on the basis of their quality. It is certainly not (as Tim postulates) because we have ‘been useful or obliging’ to BALI. We have never had any involvement in the organisation, either as individuals or corporately (other than paying our subs). I have never sat on any committees, boards or made any contribution to BALI. The main reason for this is that my time has been largely taken up with the Society of Garden Designers, where I seem to have been involved on just about every committee going at one time or another, including the one which set up the awards. Which brings us to Tim’s first point.

The main reason that the Society set up the awards was not to ‘maintain power and influence’, but because its members have frequently asked it to do so. There seemed to be a bit of a vacuum in terms of celebrating good design in real gardens. That the awards scheme is filling this void is underlined by the real interest from the press and also from two separate TV companies. That of course is neither a guarantee or stamp of quality. However, I think most people would agree that the design quality of the winning schemes was very high, certainly higher than I have seen evidenced in other awards ceremonies, some of which have different criteria.

I suspect that the judging panel of the SGD awards would be deeply offended by Tim’s assertion that the gongs are handed out on a largesse basis. The judges were almost all completely independent from the Society and instructed to take a completely independent view in their decisions. Tim is entitled to his views and I would support his right to express them freely (and frequently have done so in my role on the editorial panel of the Garden Design Journal). His opinions are almost always interesting often introduce fresh light on a subject. Sometimes however, (as in this case) the arc of his opinion neatly skips over the facts. Charles Jencks, who won the John Brookes (or lifetime achievement award) has never had anything to do with the Society. Dan Pearson, who won the Grand Award, is a member but has never (to my knowledge) served on any committees or on council, or even does anything behind the scenes. I suspect he is too busy with his practice most of the time. As such, the two central planks in Tim’s article seem to be unsupported by the facts.

So what are awards good for? I cannot deny that it is gratifying to receive an award. But, as Tim suggests, one should not trust these instincts; they serve little other than to puff oneself up. Nonetheless, I have found awards to be a useful marketing tool. Confronted with trying to find a garden designer, many clients find the panoply of practitioners on offer confusing, and find awards a useful way of filtering. They view a designer’s involvement in the Chelsea Flower Show (and other similar shows) in the same light. Whether this is sensible or not is arguable, but clients will tend to take account of such things. I also find that preparing the publicity material for awards is a useful discipline in getting marketing material ready for more general use. Finally, all the people involved with working on an award-winning scheme feel some sense of gratification and recognition, from the client and designers through to the contractors and suppliers. It would seem to me to be curmudgeonly to deny this as a good thing.

It is true that some awards schemes fall short of the standards one would like to see. There are those which hand out awards like sweets. There may even be some that operate on the back-slapping principles that Tim suggests, although I don’t know of any. However, the real point about awards schemes is that at their best, they are all about a celebration of excellence. They inspire and encourage individuals and companies to strive for better quality in design and execution. And that has to be worth supporting.

 John Wyer