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Clear objectives will strengthen the Stirling Prize

The rules were drawn up in a contingent fashion, responding to fads, television and a desire to be super-internationalist, writes Paul Finch

The RIBA’s welcome review of its awards programme, and in particular the Stirling and international prizes, provides an opportunity for clear thinking about their purpose and organisation. I spent many hours talking about this with Tony Chapman, the institute’s head of awards, during my decade-long membership of the awards committee. We reached the conclusion long ago that is now being considered: that the Stirling Prize should be for the best building in Britain in any given year, and that the Lubetkin Prize (or whatever it may be called) should go to the best building by a British-based practice beyond our shores.

Current rules require long-winded explanations, largely because they were drawn up in a contingent fashion, responding to fads, the demands of television and a desire to appear super-internationalist. However, let’s give credit where it is due: the awards are, in general, well-conducted. The first stage of the Stirling Prize, the RIBA regional and national awards, are only given after on-site visits by panels including lay assessors. All further awards are based on additional, independent visits. This is a strong system, and occasional judging controversies are only proof that views differ.

So what exactly is the problem? It is partly nomenclature, as the perennial debate about regional/national awards makes only too clear. The rules seem to change with every passing year, when in truth we all know that there is an underlying hierarchy which runs as follows: regional, national, Stirling Prize longlist, Stirling Prize shortlist, Stirling Prize winner.

The next problem is eligibility. Believe it or not, for many years it would have been perfectly possible for an overseas RIBA member, who had joined merely by paying a subscription fee, to win the Stirling Prize for a building in, say, Stuttgart, designed by an office in Germany with no British architects involved. Similarly, because honorary fellows and RIBA gold medallists were/are eligible to enter the awards, should any of them have designed a building in the EU, then they would be in with a shout for the Stirling - for example a building in Copenhagen by a Danish architect.

Which brings us to the dilemma of geography. The reason the Stirling Prize applies to buildings in the EU is partly because television loved the idea of continental involvement, but didn’t have the funding to travel further afield. That practical consideration also applied to the institute, which is why it invented the Lubetkin Prize for work outside the EU. However, there was always a strong case for the Stirling applying to UK buildings, whoever might have designed them, assuming someone in their office was an RIBA member.

The purpose of the Stirling Prize is surely to promote the UK’s architectural culture via the rewarding of built excellence. This is hugely strengthened if the winner has a physical connection to this country. The prize also promotes the RIBA, but that is a secondary matter. Why does it need the prefix ‘RIBA’ - which sounds jealously protective and nervous - is there another Stirling Prize? Does the Turner Prize need ‘Tate’ in front of it?

Similarly, the overseas prize should promote our own architectural culture by restricting eligibility to offices based here. The institute recognises talent across the world through its Royal Gold Medal and international fellowships so can scarcely be accused of being parochial. Awards are a separate matter.

Let’s hope the review reinforces what remains a key part of the RIBA’s programme. Whatever happens, the awards need to be based on visits. And could someone please lift a phone and raise prize money again? If Scotland can do it, why can’t Portland Place?

 

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