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RIBA awards have become a vehicle for cultural regression

Ellis Woodman
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It’s no surprise the institute has ignored A House for Essex, writes Ellis Woodman

The RIBA’s refusal to grant A House for Essex a national award may have united the world – or at least that part of it represented on my Twitter stream – in incredulity, but I can’t say I share its outrage. This reflects no antipathy on my part towards a building that is clearly destined to delight and inspire future generations and enjoy protection through listing. I remain unmoved only because the failure of the RIBA to recognise its qualities is hardly a source of surprise.

This is an organisation that is institutionally averse to buildings that demonstrate an engagement with history. Excellent architects working in a traditional idiom have long since reconciled themselves to that situation. So while Williamstrip Bath House, a highly inventive but Classical swimming pool on a private estate in Gloucestershire, ranks among my favourite buildings of the past decade, its architect, Craig Hamilton, knew better than to submit it to the RIBA’s awards programme.

Like those Japanese troops who remained oblivious to the end of the Second World War, the RIBA is riddled with foot soldiers still  fighting the ideological conflicts of the 1980s

But as the case of A House for Essex makes clear, the institute’s blinkered perspective is no longer a problem solely for Classicists. An ever-expanding group of British architects are making work that melds modern and traditional themes, and it is proving a development to which significant forces within the RIBA are opposed. How, for example, to account for the fact that RIBA East also overlooked Cottrell & Vermeulen’s Brentwood School Library and Adam Khan’s work for Pensthorpe Bird Reserve? These are substantial buildings by architects of international reputation that have enjoyed extensive and sympathetic reviews. Could the jury’s surprising choices perhaps have something to do with the library’s quasi-Roman brick arches and Pensthorpe’s ornamentally fretted rainscreen?

RIBA East is far from the only culprit. Like those Japanese troops, stationed on obscure Pacific islands, who remained oblivious to the end of the Second World War, the RIBA is riddled with foot soldiers still bravely fighting the ideological conflicts of the 1980s. So in 2015 there was no award for David Chipperfield’s Fayland House in Buckinghamshire – a building that makes expressive use of non-loadbearing columns – despite the fact that The Architectural Review had recently judged it the best new house in the world. In the same year, the North London jury declined to even visit Stephen Taylor’s widely published – and boldly ornamental – houses on Stapleton Hall Road. The messaging from Portland Place only supports the prejudice. The continued absence of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown from the list of Royal Gold Medal winners speaks volumes about the RIBA’s attitude to the work of a practice like FAT.

I once interviewed Scott Brown at a public event in London, after which the committed Modernist John Winter – with whom she had maintained a somewhat unlikely friendship since they studied together at the Architectural Association in the 1950s – approached me in a state of blind fury. Unable to convey his anger to his friend, he directed it at me: ‘What was all this talk of respecting what is on the ground? What is on the ground is SHIT!’ I thought it an antiquated view, but Winter’s vehemence reflected his commitment to modern architecture’s socially progressive mission.

Is the RIBA’s resistance to a historically engaged architecture attributable to such high ideals? I fear the truth has more to do with the ossified tastes of its members who, despite devoting long careers to rehashing the architecture of 1950s America for Bedfordshire stockbrokers, would not dream of identifying themselves as historicists. The most advanced architecture being produced in Britain today recognises the discipline’s entire history as a source of form and meaning that is open to creative appropriation. While it kids itself that it is fending off the forces of conservatism, the RIBA awards programme has itself become a vehicle for cultural regression.

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