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Try as you might, it's tough to fault Chipperfield

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Former AJ editor Isabel Allen asks why it has taken so long for the RIBA to give David Chipperfield its prestigious Gold Medal

When I became editor of the AJ, one of my predecessors, Stephen Greenfield, offered a piece of advice: ‘Look for the project they’re trying to keep quiet - every architect has something they’re embarrassed about lurking in the back of a drawer’.

It became something of an obsession: identifying that pesky faux pas that never made it to the Monograph. I was especially determined to identify David Chipperfield’s fatal flaw. I had a score to settle. My first encounter with Chipperfield had left me crushed.

I was a third year architecture student. He was my external examiner. Having been assigned the last slot of the day, I figured he’d be tired. It seemed polite - clever, even - to pare my presentation down to bare essentials: I ditched the site plan on the basis that every student was showing pretty much the same thing and he’d have got the general idea. Chipperfield took one look and said, simply, ‘You haven’t shown a site plan. It’s disrespectful to the context and the city. Never do that again.’ 

My quest to prove that he, too, was capable of an error of judgment was doomed from the start. I thought I’d got him once. Looking at the elevational drawings for his studio for the sculptor Antony Gormley phrases like ‘cardboard cut-out’, ‘child-like’ and even ‘mid-life crisis’ started to swirl around my head. But the building is a triumph; playful yes, but, executed with the polish, poetry and perfection - and, crucially, respect towards the context and the city - that are the Chipperfield stock-in-trade. Gormley’s studio swiftly made it to my top 10 buildings of all time. And yes, the other nine are by Chipperfield as well.

I was overwhelmed with civic pride when Wakefield, my home town, selected Chipperfield to design the Hepworth Museum. (And believe me, coming from Wakefield, moments of civic pride are few and far between).  And I felt a surge of proper patriotism when the RIBA finally awarded him the Gold Medal.

I’ve heard whispers that, at a precocious 57, he’s claimed the honour with an unseemly haste. But this is a talent that appeared fully formed. There are no awkward youthful projects. Trust me, I’ve looked. The big Gold Medal question is not ‘So soon?’ but ‘What took so long?’.

 

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