RIBA head of awards and chairman of the judges Tony Chapman gives an insider's view of the thrills and spills of eight years of judging architecture's premier prize
Stirling judges are an interesting bunch, believe me. During the past eight years I've worked with 40 of them - give or take a few who came back for more. They all give up four or five days of their valuable time to trek around Europe and the architects among them also give up any chance they might have had of winning that year's prize. And only half of them have had the compensation of getting their faces on TV. So the judges - including the likes of James Dyson and Stella McCartney - who did it between 1996 and 1999 must have had some more obscurely altruistic reasons, as Channel 4 did not start televising it until 2000.
It is hard work. In the eight years, we've been as far north as Tiree, as far east as Berlin, as far west as Dublin and as far south as Stühlingen, which is practically Switzerland. In between, and most exhaustingly, we've covered the majority of the pages of the London A-Z, usually in a variety of minibuses driven by Gerry Mournian, a man who's seen more Stirling runners and riders than any of the judges. Armed with the architects' original entry material, a set of detailed criteria that runs to nine pages and a portfolio of air and rail tickets (means of transport supplemented by taxis, people movers and hire cars, not to mention feet the time we got stuck in a traffic jam), we've covered tens of thousands of miles in search of the best eight buildings in the European Union by a British architect.
Critics of Stirling say, how can they possibly choose from the diverse lists presented to every jury? I've seen more references to apples and pears in such articles than you'd expect in a greengrocers. Yet human beings make such difficult choices all the time, whether we are picking a shampoo, a meal or a partner. And these are not purely aesthetic judgements either. The judges are looking for buildings that work for the people that use them, more than for the people who pass by them in their daily lives. That means talking to clients and not to architects, who are actually barred from being present on such visits. And these days, of course, every word the judges utter, every breath they exhale, is picked up by radio mic and committed to tape to be used in evidence against them.
Unsurprisingly, this makes some judges pretty nervous, though the forthrightness of others does make you wonder what they might have said about a scheme without such inhibition. But then they are looking at half a dozen of the best new buildings: there should be plenty of good things to say.What they're after is the building 'thought to be the most significant of the year for the evolution of architecture and the built environment', which is an interesting choice of words.
Ah-ha, say the prize's critics, so there is a Modernists' agenda here. Not a bit of it; the words are not dissimilar to those in the RIBA's charter, the bit about advancing architecture, written in those heady days of Modernism, the 1830s. It's just a matter of development; we'd like to think that a building that advances the theory and practice of conservation or Classicism could one day win the RIBA Stirling Prize.
Little did Hugh Pearman, Jane Priestman and Chris Palmer - then respectively sponsor, chair of the awards group and RIBA director of public affairs - know what they were starting when they dreamed the thing up back in the mid-'90s. Taken forward by Marco Goldschmied, who was chair by the time the thing got under way and when they gave the first prize to Stephen Hodder, the award has been seen by five million people on Channel 4 and produced more column inches than Nelson. Having outgrown the RIBA's headquarters, the dinner has been to Glasgow's Kelvingrove, the Science Museum, the Great Court, BALTIC and Explore@Bristol, attracting more than two and a half thousand guests. Thanks to all our sponsors, it is now the event in the architectural calendar. And as well as raising the public's consciousness of what makes for good buildings (as if they didn't instinctively know), it's helped put architecture on the political agenda as well - Tony Blair himself insisted on introducing the 2001 event, albeit on video. But, perhaps most importantly, it has helped to improve the self-esteem of a profession that - hard to recall now - had taken something of a battering in the '80s and early '90s, and has aided and abetted the fulfilment of their dreams.Which is good for us all.
Tony Chapman, RIBA head of awards