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Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios is Britain’s ‘best’ architect in past five years

Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios has won more national RIBA Awards in the past five years than any other practice, it has emerged

Awards data since 2010 show that the Bath-based firm, led by founders Peter Clegg – who is chairman of the RIBA Awards panel – and Keith Bradley, has received 10 national awards over the period, just ahead of the nine won by Hopkins Architects.

Next in the rankings come Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, Allies and Morrison and Haworth Tompkins, each picking up six national awards. Duggan Morris also stands out, having won five awards, despite having been in practice for just 10 years.

While such firms have edged out many of the signature architects on home soil, the likes of Foster + Partners and David Chipperfield Architects excel when RIBA’s European and International award categories are taken into account.

When all three categories are combined, Fosters and Hopkins lead the pack, with 12 awards each over the five-year period, with Chipperfield just behind scooping 11 awards.

Observers said the figures show a correlation between commercial nous and critical acclaim.

Russell Curtis, director at up-and-coming firm RCKa, which picked up its first RIBA Award this year, said: ‘What unifies these practices appears to be well-considered and appropriate design combined with a commercial approach that enables them to compete directly with less-talented, but cheaper, firms. Many of the winning schemes also benefited from the continuing involvement of the architect, demonstrating a real interest in building.’

Maria Smith, director at another young practice, Studio Weave, said the top performers were also those most popular with leading clients.

She said: ‘The list of which practices are most successful at the RIBA Awards not only tells us who is creating great buildings or the type of architecture the judges prefer, it tells us who is accessing the best clients. The types of practices that are winning are the types of practices that significant clients trust with their significant projects.’

But others questioned whether the RIBA Awards are too conservative. Sam Jacob, the former director of FAT who is co-curating this year’s British Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale and is a former RIBA Awards judge, said there was ‘something fantastic’ about the awards’ scrutiny and selection rigour.

However, he added: ‘They prioritise architecture as a professional activity rather than as a cultural, social or political form of practice. […] But, in doing this, they have a tendency to exclude more radical, more unusual forms of architectural practice’.

Further comments

Murray Fraser, professor of architecture and global culture at The Bartlett

‘What is most noticeable about the winners of RIBA Awards over the past five years is that they are an incredibly diverse group. There is no automatic favouring of the larger and more famous practices; indeed smaller up-and-coming firms can just as easily do as well, if not better. 

The practices share a strong commitment to spending more time on design

‘What all of the successful practices share — whether they happen to be small, medium or large — is a strong commitment to spending more time on design than perhaps the typical practice does, plus they use essential techniques such as making lots of physical models to test out their ideas spatially. That level of energy and quality always shines out in the end, whether it is from firms like Niall McLaughlin Architects or Duggan Morris, where one or two partners carefully control each of the design projects, or else a super-effective team which is operating within a much larger practice like Hopkins.

‘I also don’t think being in London necessarily gives firms a clear advantage. Most of the RIBA Awards each year are in London because that is where the majority of construction work occurs, due to the increasing regional disparities in wealth. I am not supporting this trend but just pointing out a consequence of globalisation. There happen to be plenty of high-quality firms all over the UK, as well as in other countries. If one includes the Lubetkin and European Awards in the picture, then a city like Dublin, which is far smaller than London, contains practices like O’Donnell Tuomey and Grafton Architects that regularly win these levels of awards with designs that are as good as, if not better than, those of the best London firms.’ 

Martyn Evans, creative director, Cathedral Group

‘It is a very interesting list. It is not a bad list of who I think is hot right now.

‘From a developers perspective we are always so much happier to speak to architects which understand the business of creating great buildings – placemaking, economics and the creating of communities – rather than simply the aesthetics and the building’s operation.

‘Winning projects should be about creating places and community.

‘I’m all for beautiful buildings which make your heart sing and soar when you look at them but often the conversation in awards judging is too much about aesthetics, rather than focusing on the users and the community.

Award-winning buildings are about economic and social sustainability

‘For me, award-winning buildings are about economic and social sustainability. Buildings have to provide jobs and an economy for the area in which building sits. Architects which understand that should be winning awards. The list of top architects reflects this – many of them have got it.’

Sam Jacob, founder, Sam Jacob Studio

‘Having won, not won and judged RIBA awards, there is something fantastic in the way they work. The process is fantastic - peer review by colleagues and real experience of places being so different from the thousands of other kinds of prizes awarded at arm’s length.

‘But at the same time the general gloss they give to the world of architecture address a very particular idea. It’s an idea of architecture where detail, material and ‘good’ design are paramount. Of course, these things are important. But there is more to architecture as a discipline.

RIBA Awards have a tendency to exclude radical and unusual forms of practice

‘RIBA Awards prioritise an architecture as a professional activity rather than a cultural, social or political form of practice. They show the world a skilled and careful vision of what architecture can do. But in doing this they also have a tendency to exclude more radical, more unusual and less traditional forms of architectural practice.

‘Perhaps, in a world where the idea of what architecture is and what an architect does is changing rapidly they need to expand their world view a little, open up to different forms of practice.

‘The awards are one of the most public shop windows for British architecture, so maybe it’s possible to use the moment to make more persuasive arguments for architectures relevance and possibilities to the wider world.’

Maria Smith, co-founder, Studio Weave

‘The list of which practices are most successful at the RIBA Awards not only tells us who’s creating great buildings or the type of architecture the judges prefer - it tells us who’s accessing the best clients. The types of practices that are winning are the types of practices that significant clients trust with their significant projects.’ 

Russell Curtis, director, RCKa Architects

‘It reassuring that even during a period of considerable economic upheaval there are practices which have continued to produce some great buildings, and particularly so that many of these are for public clients.

‘What unifies these practices appears to be well-considered and appropriate design combined with a commercial approach that enables them to compete directly with less talented - but cheaper - firms. Many of the winning schemes have also benefitted from the continuing involvement of the architect, demonstrating a real interest in building, an approach which is common to those practices which are the recipients of several awards.

‘I also hope that it’s a sign that public-sector clients are becoming more design aware and recognising the importance of great architecture to our towns and cities; it’s a shame that this isn’t a pattern that is necessarily repeated outside London, although undoubtedly this has a lot to do with the two-speed economy.

‘Whilst there are some great practices doing beautiful work outside London, I wonder whether the concentration of awards in the capital is a result of many architects focussing their efforts here due to the sheer volume of work available.

‘Although many of the winning projects have a discernible focus on sustainability, I’m not sure that this is necessarily a key criterion for success; rather it’s a reflection on how embedded sustainability is becoming within the design process.’

Carl Turner, director, Carl Turner Architects

The top architects are passionate about buildings and architecture

‘The top architects are those who are passionate about buildings, and about architecture. Their success is that they are able to talk to clients about ideas, convince and then protect the key ideas through the rigours of the development process.

‘In a risk adverse culture, only practices who can demonstrate a track record of delivery are going to be entrusted with larger projects and important projects. This also implies a certain scale of organisation, stability and do forth, allied with of course passion and knowledge. It does seem that the focus on avant garde or eccentric ‘superstar ’ led practices has gone, and maybe this is no bad thing.

‘Sustainability is now a given if you make a shortlist. It is a key part of thoughtful design.

‘This year the panel I sat on long listed several small projects, but as we reviewed the final shortlist, it becomes hard to justify them against large, complex projects. So they have to be perfect to get on a shortlist. We did also give an award to borough market, not for a building but for a 15 year urban design jigsaw puzzle on a vast scale, more for not destroying the market than for any architectural brilliance or showmanship.

‘Travelling back to my hometown of hull and the north in general for instance, there is a shocking mediocrity in much of what has been built over the last 10 years. I guess it’s partly economics [that most of the award-winning projects are in London], but also a lack of vision by clients. It’s a short term approach rather than understanding that an investment in quality will protect the development in the longer term.’

 

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