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The Royal Gold Medal crit

[THIS WEEK] The Gold Medal crit was gentle, but had room for a slice of dissent, writes James Pallister

The Royal Gold Medal students crit isn’t known for searing critique, high tempers or character assassinations. Yet, within the wood-panelled Aston Webb room at the RIBA’s London HQ, there was room for criticism of architectural grandiosity, top-down planning and the RIBA itself.

Sitting at the long table this year was Peter Blundell-Jones from the University of Sheffield; Bartlett director, Marcos Cruz; the RIBA president Ruth Reed and, just hours from receiving his Gold Medal, David Chipperfield.

After Part 1 and 2 winners Jack Hudspith and Jonathan Schofield talked the audience through their projects, Clare Richards presented her ‘Happy Communities’ dissertation. Richards’ two case studies illustrated that investment in design doesn’t necessarily lead to cohesive communities. Architects too often work in isolation from the people who occupy their buildings, she argued, and often had an artificially inflated sense of the built environment’s power to shape communities.

Chipperfield approved, wondering why we had let the planning of our cities become entirely developer-led. ‘It’s easy to build museums,’ he noted, but we’d turned away from the most important challenge – to build homes. Blundell-Jones concurred with Richards’ exhortation that ‘architecture needs to be reclaimed as a social discipline’. The floor was quiet compared to last year’s event with IM Pei. One growl of dissent came from the back. Aren’t architects misunderstood, because like other professions – bar medics, helped by their union, the BMA – they are incapable of defending themselves?

The implied criticism hung heavy. For about half a second. Ruth Reed breezed it away: ‘It seems architectural education is under criticism as much as the students presenting today.’ And with that, this thoroughly genteel event came to a close.

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