Prize farce at the gong show

Bush-hut bus shelters, an Anti-Oedipal house - what were the finalists for the Jane Drew Prize up to? And why did it nearly go to a 101-year- old?
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Near-resignations and rows have dogged what promised to be one of the glittering gongs in the architectural firmament. You would have thought that awarding a new prize for services to architecture of pounds 10,000 (plus an Eduardo Paolozzi sculpture in a box made by Sir Norman Foster's model-makers) would have been easy. But the judges of the inaugural Jane Drew Prize, given for showing "diversity, innovation and collaboration in the field of architecture", were so divided over the shortlisted four that the prize nearly went to a 101-year-old Viennese architect for a kitchen she designed in 1925.

Tonight at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London a polite round of applause will greet the presentation of the award to Kathryn Gustafson. Then the four judges - Doris Saatchi; the architect, Eva Jiricna; the architecture critic Deyan Sudjic and James Lingwood of artangel, the influential group that organises art in public spaces - will issue a statement to explain their dissatisfaction with the selection process.

At no time were even two of the judges present together when the selection committee considered the submissions. This statement amounts to a disclaimer for the four finalists: Jane Priestman, a client; an architectural practice called FAT (Fashion Architecture Taste); the lighting installation artist Martin Richman; and Gustafson.

How did this extraordinary division come to pass?

The story began a year ago when it was decided as a joint initiative by the RIBA Women Architects Group and the Arts Council of England to make a new award in architecture. What they wanted from applicants was innovation (to reflect Jane Drew's role as a catalyst in 20th-century architecture), diversity (to extend traditional categories of architecture) and inclusiveness (highlighting collaborative work). In other words, a thoroughly Nineties project. But finding a cutting-edge practice or a person (not necessarily female) who pushes the boundaries while being multi-disciplinary proved more difficult than anyone had imagined.

Charisma wasn't one of the qualities the nominations committee sought. But after a tedious evening at the ICA forum on 19 May, when the four finalists were given 10 minutes each to show us why they deserved to win, it certainly should in the future.

Gustafson, a landscape architect, didn't turn up herself but sent someone to mumble his way through some striking slides of her work: semi-circles in steel laid over acres of green scaled like an amphitheatre; weirdly shaped steel ramps leap-frogging over pools and concrete forecourts. Much of it needed an explanation, particularly the jumping-bean fountains and bogged-down plans for Crystal Palace which were turned down for being too modern. She sent a manuscript on her methodology, but her Dadaist prose is pure drivel. "I often work with the ground plane," she writes. "It's the one area people always touch, see, hear. Up, down, hard, soft, wet, dry, crunch, colour."

The fatuously named FAT's strongest point is their multi-disciplinary way of working. Known as activists - the kind of practice which produces manifestos - two FAT men at the forum were far from inspirational: slides of bus shelters designed in collaboration with artists showed how to turn the structure into a bush hut; their interiors for a leisure complex (dread description) called the Brunel Rooms at Swindon which collages airports with allotments - a sprint down the running track passes the baggage reclaim area to break the tape in a suburban allotment. They didn't show their Anti-Oedipal house, which was a case study for Milton Keynes - where Drew herself designed a building for the Open University. FAT's prototypical house separates the parents from the child, with the parents in an arch- Modernist glass house "where they may fulfil their passion for dinner parties and obsessive cleanliness" and the child above in a pink graffiti- like banana described as a "voluptuous masturbatorium". So now we know why they didn't win.

Richman showed his coloured light installations at the Tysely Energy From Waste Facility in Birmingham and the Majestic hotel in Barcelona. His work is interesting but he described it as "a little like window dressing, tarting up a smelly old whore, with a splash of perfume behind the North West elevation, and a touch behind the industrial ears, a visual splash to suggest money well spent." Whoops, there goes the Paolozzi and the pounds 10,000.

Jane Priestman was that rare individual, the visionary client. When she worked for the British Airports Authority she commissioned Foster's Stansted glass shed. At British Rail, as director of architecture, design and environment from 1986 to 1991, she worked on the image of InterCity, Network South East, Rail Freight, parcels, and Regional Railways to get them ready for privatisation. More than 2,800 stations were in her remit, many of them listed. She is most proud of Waterloo, "the symbol of what is known as creative Britain", which she commissioned from Nick Grimshaw.

Just to prove that the Jane Drew Prize was not about lifetime achievements, the chairperson, Sarah Wigglesworth, lobbed Priestman the meanest question. Describing Priestman's work as like a "dating agency putting together long-term fruitful relationships", she asked why she hadn't used more up-and-coming architects in preference to well-known establishment ones. This would have broken what Wigglesworth called "a wartime collaboration with the enemy". Stung, Jane Priestman pointed out that when she hired Nicholas Grimshaw he wasn't very well known; and besides, she had tried to be as daring as possible with public money. "It's easier in design and graphics to introduce new faces," she said.

Architects these days have to be performing artists. Even Sir Norman Foster takes photo-calls and gives guided tours of his buildings. The ebullient Daniel Libeskind proved this brilliantly with his controversial Spiral extension at the V&A. Each week for a year he has given solo performances in front of trustees, patrons of the arts, planners, English Heritage and the media to drum up support for his building. Faultlessly holding out the wing flaps of his paper model, cut like an origami box to show us what happens inside, seamlessly taking us through his complicated building step by step, talking to the museum cleaners about maintenance, he involves us in his design. None of the new faces for the Jane Drew awards made that kind of effort to catch our attention.

Who knows which way Jane Drew would have voted to give away her prize? She took her rucksack - and what one-time employee in the Fifties, Cedric Price, recalls as "bees in her bonnet" - around the world when we still had a Commonwealth. The Kikuyu in Kenya, the Nigerians building a sports stadium, co-operative bankers in Lagos, and oil-rich expats in Iraq were her clients. When the specification for "steel-less stained sinks" erroneously turned up hundreds of times on finished working drawings for the Indian premier Indira Gandhi's house, Drew insisted that someone change them all by hand. Calling her book, written with her partner and one-time husband, Maxwell Fry, Architecture in the Humid Tropics: Tropical Architecture" belabours her single-mindedness. But hassling Denis Healey when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer until 2am until she got the ICA on the Mall in London, where it stands today, celebrates the moment when persistence turns to idealism.

"She made things happen. A catalyst," says Doris Saatchi. "How few female architects ever emerge with any kind of an international profile. What about Mrs Aalto, wife of the celebrated Finnish architect Alvar Aalto? Or Mrs Charles Rennie Mackintosh? Or Mrs Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, married to Robert Venturi? They're all architects and designers who made a very substantial contribution to the work that their husbands have become famous for."

Doris Saatchi's feeling is that for a first-time prize, "an award waiting to happen", there weren't enough nominations. "Next year we hope there will be more." In the testosterone-charged world of architecture, one can only hope that the many talented female architects and people who make things happen will get their acts together.

I'm getting in my nominations early: Cindy Walters and Michelle Cohen, whose blueprints for Jigsaw nursery schools were put into Braille for David Blunkett to discover what primary colour can do for learning; Amanda Levete, from Future Systems, for the bold way in which she is reinventing the staid old "Ideal Home" showhouses, and her committee work; and Lucy Musgrave, the sparky young head of the Architectural Foundation, for the way in which she drummed up local support for radical changes to the urban environment in the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham. They are the movers and shakers of the future.