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Is FCBS the best design architect in Britain?

With ten national RIBA awards in five years FCBS has won more institute accolades in the UK than any other practice, writes Rory Olcayto

We’ve been looking closely at the RIBA Awards for the past five years. In 2010, we had the idea of presenting the awards not by region, but by use type. The idea was that we could begin to get a sense of what the best British architecture looked like. This year we’ve gone a step further and charted the most successful award-winning firms since we began our annual review.

The results are surprising. And interesting. For example: Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios (FCBS) is the ‘best’ architect in Britain. With 10 national RIBA awards over the past five years, the sustainability specialist is one award clear of Hopkins Architects, its nearest rival, and four clear of Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, Allies and Morrison and Haworth Tompkins, which each have six.

Does that make FCBS the best? Let’s put it another way. Are the RIBA Awards a good system to measure design quality? You tell me. You sit on the juries. You decide who gets what. What does the triumph of FCBS actually mean? Well it says much about RIBA’s sustainability push over the past five years - since Sunand Prasad’s tenure as president ended in fact - and how a certain way of thinking about low-energy design has shaped the look and feel of contemporary design.

Lots of other stories can be gleaned from the facts and figures, like this one: eight of the top 11 award-winning firms - i.e. those with five or more RIBAs - are AJ100 firms as well. So what? Here’s what: it suggests business success and great design go pretty much hand in hand.

Another economic factoid: the three richest regions in Britain - London, the South-East and Scotland - have won more RIBAs than anywhere else, which suggests that good design is synonymous with wealth.

And, while you may always have thought that the likes of David Chipperfield and Zaha Hadid go on a bit about not winning much work in the UK (‘What about the Hepworth and Margate, and One Pancras Square, the Glasgow Riverside Museum, the Aquatics Centre, Evelyn Grace?’ you ask), the fact that most of their RIBA wins have been either EU or International awards suggests their gripes were not unreasonable.

Does this exercise mean anything? Of course it does. At the very least, next time your foreign pals visit from abroad and ask: ‘What does Great British architecture look like?’ you can say with assurance: ‘Pretty much anything by Feilden Clegg Bradley. And that’s a fact.’

3D printing

Put your hand up if you’re interested in technology? Come on … surely at least one of you is? You should be. And more so today than ever before, now that 3D printing is really beginning to transform design and construction. In April this year a Chinese contractor showcased 10 houses it had printed in 24 hours. Now Arup has unveiled its streamlined structural steel sections. This development is particularly exciting: structural elements can now be designed precisely for the job in hand, with no wasted material, meaning lighter buildings, with less embodied energy. And, because the form of the elements reflect where the stress and strains upon them are located, a new aesthetic is also emerging. Modernism is (long) dead. Long live 3D Printism!

What an honour

I’ve been lucky enough to share a few moments in recent years with the great Joseph Rykwert, honoured last week with a CBE. Congratulations Joseph, from all at the AJ. It has been a great year for the legendary critic and historian - and architect - who in January received RIBA’s Gold Medal. We’ve made a web page listing his best articles.

rory.olcayto@emap.com Twitter: @roryolcayto

Readers' comments (1)

  • Not if you judge them by their work at Mount Pleasant.

    Perhaps a better way of assessing such claims would be to judge a practice by their 'worst' work rather than by their 'best'. We, the public, have to live with everything - the good, the bad and the ugly and architects should be accountable for it all - not be allowed to trumpet only those projects that won medals.

    Your article also highlights AHMM and Allies & Morrison, who also contributed to the unfolding disaster at Mount Pleasant. It's not their fault, their hands were tied by a poor and unchallenged brief, but the result is a tragedy for London. Such examples should not be allowed to go unnoticed just because awards keeping rolling in for a tiny minority of work.

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