The RIBA Stirling Prize in association with The Architects' Journal is the UK's biggest and most prestigious architectural prize. Established in 1996 to commemorate the late James Stirling, it has gained momentum year on year, generating extensive media coverage and fuelling the growing public interest in architecture.
By 1999, interest in the event was sufficient for bookmaker Ladbrokes to start taking bets, although the book was closed early when it was suspected that news of the winner had leaked out. For the past two years judges have delayed making a final decision until the evening of the awards ceremony in order to prevent any leaks. William Hill ran a book on the Stirling Prize in 2000 and 2001 - presumably making a killing when the clear favourite, the Eden Project, was pipped at the post this year.
Last year, the judging and the awards ceremony were televised on Channel 4 for the first time, attracting one million viewers. This year 1.1 million people tuned in - more than the combined television audience for the Booker and Turner prizes. The Stirling Prize's popular appeal is partly down to an increasing interest in architecture. But it is also due to the canny decision to include celebrities on the judging panel (past judges include Stella McCartney and Tracey Emin) combined with architecture's own larger-than-life characters. Will Alsop's expletive-laced acceptance speech in 2000 caused outrage and prompted an outpouring of letters to the press from architects who felt that he had brought the profession into disrepute, but undoubtedly helped viewing figures this year.
Awards thrive on contention and the Stirling Prize has attracted its fair share. Some feel that the desire for popular appeal brings an in-built bias: the award has yet to go to an office building despite some outstanding contenders, and winners have usually been buildings which the public knows and loves. There is also some debate as to whether the award should be open to non-RIBA members. Many thought that Herzog & de Meuron's Tate Modern should have been a contender and, with Libeskind's Imperial War Museum and Gehry's Maggie's Centre in Dundee both nearing completion, the issue is bound to rear its head again.
Most importantly, the Stirling Prize always sparks a debate about the quality of British architecture and the criteria which should be used to judge the very best.