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It has been a great year for the Stirling Prize

After the Stirling Prize party comes one prize hangover, says Christine Murray

Within moments of the Stirling Prize announcement, the navel-gazing begins. What does the winner say about the state of British architecture? Is the awarding of a restored ruin the right message? Does the fact that the Stirling Prize guests were wined and dined on scotch eggs, pork pies and bangers and mash show how far architecture’s biggest prize has fallen?

But despite the frayed edges - the lack of prize money, the bizarre ‘class system’ ticketing and no hour-long TV special - it has been a great year for the Stirling Prize. The shortlist featured six projects with which the profession is proud to be associated. There’s nothing here that could be misunderstood by the public - just quality design and world-class architecture by a talented profession.

With Newhall Be, there’s handsome contemporary housing that puts the noddy-boxes to shame. At Park Hill and Astley Castle, there’s the respectful reinvigoration of existing and historic building stock, showing regeneration doesn’t have to be about bulldozing or juxtaposing with bombastic icons. And in the chapel, Giant’s Causeway and the Limerick university campus, we see modern architecture that stands up with the best of what comes out of Europe, built with quality and longevity in mind.

The shortlist’s coverage on the Today programme and the winner’s coverage on the BBC’s News at Ten felt more serious - and less marginalised and frivolous - than some longer programmes of recent years. It did feel like the Stirling Prize was being treated in the same way as the Turner or the Booker prizes - newsworthy, and not apologetically so. It was refreshing not to watch presenters tie themselves in embarrassing knots trying to explain, sometimes condescendingly, sometimes hyperbolically, each project’s significance to Joe Public. It felt as though the significance of architecture was a given, and the prize had finally arrived.

As for the message sent by the winning project, Witherford Watson Mann’s Astley Castle, it was not the only potential winner, but it is a good winner. The simple message is that Astley Castle demonstrates a new approach to restoring historic buildings. But the project may also signal a new architecture.

In my interview with this year’s RIBA Gold Medal-winner Joseph Rykwert, the architectural critic spoke of his excitement in discovering among younger architects a new relationship to the past (AJ 20.09.13). ‘I can’t identify it yet as a new movement,’ Rykwert said, but agreed that it was not Postmodern. Rykwert cited Witherford Watson Mann’s Astley Castle as an example of this new move.

Astley Castle is respectful, but not deferential to the past. The modern interventions are not subtle, but quietly confident. Brave decisions have been made regarding what has been restored and how much destroyed or artfully left as a stabilised ruin. In his speech at the AJ Retrofit Awards, Julian Harrap said he found many of the choices intriguing from a restoration perspective - why repoint a fireplace over here, and leave another crumbling over there? ‘It is not a conservation project,’ said Harrap, ‘and you can spend a lot of time considering the decisions that have been made. I found it fascinating.’ This elevates the project to art. And, though its approach lies in the shadow of projects such as David Chipperfield and Harrap’s Neues Museum, which was shortlisted, but did not win, the Stirling Prize in 2010, Astley Castle feels more accessible to the public, quite simply because it was a home, it’s more local, and it’s easier to understand in photographs.

If this year is a turning point for the prize, it leaves the RIBA with the task, not of fighting to establish its significance, but of preserving its prestige. The prize money should come back as a priority - it communicates its value to the public. The AJ is media partner because it believes the profession benefits from a single, pre-eminent award that recognises the best in British architecture. Congratulations to the shortlist, and to the winner.

 

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