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What the Stirling Prize and blockbuster movies have in common

Christine Murray on why, when it comes to awards, a good story is as important as a good building

As I write this, we have had the Stirling Prize shortlist for 24 hours. Since then, the AJ team has been debating (quietly, to avoid any hacking of our exclusive) which project will scoop this year’s £20,000 prize. As sponsors and publishers of the Stirling Prize, we have a vested interest in the outcome, although we don’t get a say.

First reaction was not one of shock: all the projects on the list deserve their place. This is a list of Stirling veterans: it is David Chipperfield’s sixth nomination, Zaha Hadid’s fifth, and third time each for Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, Hopkins Architects, Bennetts Associates and O’Donnell + Tuomey. Hopkins’ velodrome was considered a shoo-in for the shortlist – and is still the safe bet, bookies having given odds for a Hopkins win at 2/1.

The diversity of the list suggests politics was not at play in the shortlisting – six schools would have been a clear message to Michael Gove – although half the shortlisted buildings involve the reworking of an existing building (Royal Shakespeare and Swan Theatres, the Folkwang Museum and the Angel Building), so if there is a subversive message, retrofit would be it.

Politics aside, there is an inherent logic to the make-up of the shortlist. Each project seems to represent the pinnacle of an architectural approach (Hadid, master of the iconic; Chipperfield, chieftain of the ‘whisperers’; Bennetts, greenest of the green…), and this characterisation gives a clue to the jury’s omissions.

In the presence of a beautiful Chipperfield with a difficult brief, the jury might forgo smaller, equally beautiful works by Caruso St John and 6a Architects. Hadid’s Academy, having scooped the schools slot, perhaps eliminated the will to promote the equally accomplished college by Schmidt Hammer Lassen. The Angel Building’s nimble innovations in the speculative office sector may have captured the jury’s imagination over One New Change’s largesse. Shortlists are complex animals, and an omission isn’t overt criticism. It isn’t fair, but you can see how this kind of banal bartering would prevail in seeking to agree on a diverse and interesting list of six.

There is a common thread, however, that sets these six buildings apart from the rest. Each comes with a strong narrative that can be summed up in a television-friendly line or two. Paraphrased from the judges’ citations: ‘top architect Zaha Hadid designs a school for the poorest ward in western Europe’. ‘AHMM transforms an unremarkable 1980s office block into a building of great elegance and poise’. ‘Faced with an almost impossible landlocked site, O’Donnell + Tuomey have come up with a dynamic multi-level building’… I could go on.

These dramatic one-liners will succeed in exciting the public about architecture. Everyone loves a good story, especially one about overcoming adversity. It might be worth telling the story of your next project or competition entry in a movie-trailer inspired line or two. If the Stirling shortlist is anything to go by, you just might win the day.

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