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2011 RIBA Manser Medal: Introduction

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The founder of the Manser Medal explains how it advocates for higher standards in housing design, what was so good about Georgian homes, and why the prize could be as big as the Stirling

Not all architectural awards are named after dead white male architects. Although I plead guilty on the last three counts, I am still actively involved with the award which bears my name, and keen that it should help raise the standard of housing design. Shockingly, only about 20 per cent of UK housing is designed by architects, so we have set ourselves a daunting task. But if we can use the Manser Medal to reward the very best and, implicitly, shame the worst, then we will have made a good start.

To sustain the Manser Medal’s reputation and to retain the interest of architects, the public and the press, the medal needs something to distinguish it from the many other housing awards. The buildings we consider are a cut above the rest, in that each has already won an RIBA Award. But the Manser judges are looking for extra qualities that match the architects’ intellectual aspirations.

Historically, architecture has always responded to society’s needs, coming up with new methods and materials that exploit the latest technical developments, all within the compass of reasonable expenditure. As judges, we are looking for an inspirational step forward, perhaps an experimental approach, certainly an unequivocal 21st-century solution for 21st-century occupants.

Our aim is to influence both the mass house-building companies and the general public in the direction of better design. There is huge public interest in houses; the amount of media coverage is evidence of that. The Manser Medal could potentially have as big a following as the Stirling Prize, and so expose the talent of younger practitioners, whose abilities are grossly under-used. Many successful architects begin their careers with domestic projects.

The 18th century produced the finest housing and planning ever seen. It was design-led, and in the main promoted by architect-developers or aristocrats who had done the Grand Tour and were keen to try out what they had learned on their travels on their own estates.

Based on classical geometry but with standard details for doors, windows, stairs and panelling, these plans expressed simple ideas for startlingly modern homes which satisfied increasingly sophisticated consumers from a range of income groups. Always a desirable purchase, Georgian houses are still are proving as good an investment as ever. But then, as TS Eliot said, ‘Only the genuinely new can ever be truly traditional’.

Michael Manser CBE, PPRIBA

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