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Are RIBA’s special awards that special?

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The Stirling Prize doesn’t shortlist regional winners - and neither should the Special Awards, says Rory Olcayto

In Maria Smith’s comment piece on the Stephen Lawrence Prize, the shortlist of which we spotlight this week, she begins by saying it is ‘by no means a runner-up award’. Interesting. Why? Who said it was?

Maybe no one has come out and said the Stephen Lawrence Prize is a second-tier gong in quite so many words, as Smith’s opening gambit seems to imply, but the RIBA’s shortlisting process suggests that that is precisely what it is.

Why? Because any award that draws its shortlist from regional RIBA award winners, as the Manser Medal and the Stephen Lawrence Prize do, clearly isn’t, as Alex Ferguson might say, a ‘top, top’ award.* The Stirling Prize doesn’t shortlist regional winners - and neither should the Special Awards.

I’ve made this point before, two years ago, when the RIBA first introduced this curious system and, given its penchant for changing the rules every year, my fingers are crossed that it will eventually get around to righting this obvious wrong.

Smith’s article goes on to make some very smart observations about the nature of the Stephen Lawrence Prize and what kind of architect and architecture it should reward. Her conclusion, too, seems especially right. Hopefully the RIBA - and the Marco Goldschmied Foundation, which funds the £5,000 prize - will take Smith’s advice.

Thinking big

When Norman Foster unveiled plans for his Thames Estuary airport and rail hub in November 2011, there was genuine excitement - and relief - that Britain was capable of big thinking in terms of infrastructure and planning. In the years preceding Foster’s speculative design, there was a sense that large-scale projects in Britain were on the wane and that, if architects, planners and engineers wanted to work on such projects, they had better head to China or the Emirates.

That was why Foster’s vision was so exciting - it seemed to reverse that post-crash trend. But no: Airports Commission chairman Sir Howard Davies this week concluded that an estuary airport was unviable on the basis of the huge costs, economic disruption and environmental concerns it would entail.

There is some good news to draw from this experience: we have seen an architect play a leading role in determining the vision of what kind of country we want ours to be, perhaps for the first time in decades. Foster funded the project himself - spending close to £1 million - in the hope that it would kindle nationwide support. Despite his ideas’ rejection, Foster’s actions have gone some way towards placing architects at the heart of British civic life once again. And while it would be preferable to see Foster promote new ideas for low-cost housing or contemporary hospitals, for example, rather than spend his energies on promoting better airport design, the big thinking is welcome, and well worth applauding. He’s done the profession a very good turn.

rory.olcayto@emap.com Twitter: @roryolcayto

* When arguing that Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard was not a world-class footballer, the former Manchester United manager described him as ‘not a top, top player’.

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