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Without public spending, only architects can give the profession a new social purpose

The projects shortlisted for this year’s Stirling Prize are truly exceptional. But they are not dangerous, says Christine Murray

I’m often told by architects that they are disillusioned by the loss of a social purpose for the profession. In this week’s issue, we celebrate the RIBA Stirling Prize shortlist - six buildings that represent the best projects built or designed in Britain. Many of you have pointed out that there are no schools or public housing projects among them. Nevertheless, of the six, four can be said to be public buildings in some way: Maggie’s Gartnavel, Hepworth Wakefield, the Olympic Stadium and the Lyric Theatre.

The other two buildings, the Rothschild bank’s headquarters in the City and the Sainsbury Laboratory, have less convincing social arguments. Critics have praised Rothschild’s introduction of a public view to Wren’s St Stephen Walbrook church (a nice gesture, but in the end, just a view); and the Sainsbury Laboratory, a home for botanical research funded by Lord Sainsbury’s charitable foundation, which employs more natural light and natural ventilation than typical of laboratories but is designed to attract world-class scientists to Cambridge, rather than open its doors to the general public.

I am not surprised by the lack of a public building type on the shortlist; our current government is, sadly, not interested in excellence in social architecture. But I am disappointed, given the cost and design integrity of these projects, by the lack of revolutionary ideas with the potential for broad social application.

At the World Architecture Festival in Singapore last week, Peter Buchanan told the crowd of 1,800 architects from over 60 countries that we live in an age of confusion and profound cynicism. This is because we are living out the end of an epoch, Buchanan said. All systems are collapsing, not least the Cenozoic era, the period of earth’s cooling which began over 65 million years ago and resulted in the vast expansion of life on earth.

Buchanan, who will write about this topic for a future issue of the Architectural Review, suggested that this has left us searching for a new social purpose, and a new architecture. But first, ‘we need to decide what it is to be a human being, and what constitutes the good life’. Buchanan said we would like to feel that our lives have a greater purpose, but we are paralysed by the scale of the problems that we are faced with, not least climate change.

One day later at the festival, Enric Ruiz Geli of Spanish practice Cloud 9 admonished the profession, calling on architects to accept their hand in global warming and set the agenda for a sustainable future. Geli spoke of revolution, of buildings like his Media-TIC in Barcelona, a net-zero-carbon building which cut emissions by 60 per cent (the Kyoto Protocol calls for 20 per cent). Geli partnered with private sector manufacturers to develop new building technologies for which he owns the patent. ‘Our practice has more patents than buildings,’ he told the audience.

But Geli’s most revolutionary idea was that his high-tech sustainable building didn’t cost the client a penny extra - Media-TIC was built for the standard market rate of 1,300 euros per square metre. ‘That’s what makes this project dangerous,’ said Geli: dangerous because it has a social purpose in mitigating climate change. As Geli said, Media-TIC makes Kyoto’s targets look easy. Design innovation can contain powerful ideas. Cloud 9’s work is a political act.

The AJ is proud to support the Stirling Prize as its official trade media partner, and the projects shortlisted for this year’s award are truly exceptional. But they are not dangerous. Without the support of the public purse, only architects can give a social purpose back to the profession through design innovation.

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