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Zaha's second Stirling: The crowd was shocked, the judges unanimous

I asked the judges why Evelyn Grace and not the Velodrome - the reply was unequivocal, says Christine Murray

Off-camera, in the aftermath of the announcement that Zaha Hadid’s Evelyn Grace Academy had won the Stirling Prize, the room filled with polite applause, then went briefly quiet, then noisy with debate.

At the gala, I shared a table with Peter Cook and Hanif Kara, two of the five-strong jury, which included Alison Brooks and landscape consultant Dan Pearson, with RIBA president Angela Brady as chair. ‘Surprised, aren’t you?’ Cook said mischievously, as I sat down after presenting the cheque. The question irked me, but I would be lying if I didn’t admit it was true.

In fact, no one had tipped Zaha Hadid Architects to win again this year, not even Patrik Schumacher or Hadid herself, who skipped her flight from the US due to a chest infection, assuming, like William Hill and the rest of us, that the odds of a consecutive win were stacked against her.

In the preceding weeks, it seemed inevitable that Hopkins Architects’ London 2012 Velodrome would win, as both the hot favourite and the people’s choice, having taken 63 per cent of the RIBA’s public vote (2.8 per cent went for Evelyn Grace).

After Schumacher’s acceptance speech, I found RIBA head of awards Tony Chapman at Hopkins’ table, speaking to senior partner Mike Taylor. ‘I’ll say this, even in front of a journalist. The jury felt they could not judge the Velodrome as an Olympic venue, as it was not yet in use.’

It was a viewpoint Brooks would echo later, at Urban Splash’s afterparty in Sheffield’s Park Hill. Hopkins had entered it too soon, Brooks said, adding it was impossible to judge the success of an Olympic venue if it hadn’t yet hosted the Olympics.

When I mentioned this to Schumacher, he made a mental note to review when they would enter the Aquatics Centre in the RIBA Awards, wondering if they could wait until legacy mode, once the ears are off. Sometimes timing is everything.

As for Evelyn Grace, Kara said there was no debate among the judges, only a clear winner. Despite having visited all the buildings together, Kara said the jury had not discussed their favourite until the day of the event. Prepared for a lively discussion, the judges found they all agreed, having each come to the same conclusion on their own.

There have been complaints that Evelyn Grace was a misfired, political choice, aimed at Gove-ism and cuts to school building. But in conversation, the judges are unequivocal that the prize was for its architecture.

Brooks said it was the most successful of the six projects in its response to a difficult brief: four schools in 1.4 hectares, when the average secondary school takes up 8 or 9 hectares. ‘It is not that expensive for what they got. It was an extremely hard brief in an area with social problems. And the solution is really, very clever.’

Perhaps this is not what we expect from Hadid: we don’t associate her practice with architecture that struggles with tight sites, social problems and straightened budgets. The facts of Evelyn Grace, however, do impress. Its choice as winner may have unintended political consequences, but advocacy for big budgets for schools is no bad thing.

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