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Essay: We must preserve what the Stephen Lawrence Prize stands for

Tiree another denizen
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Laura Mark examines the relevancy of the Stephen Lawrence Prize

Launched one year after the Stirling Prize, the RIBA’s Stephen Lawrence Prize honours the memory of the murdered teenager who wanted to be an architect. It was conceived by former RIBA president Marco Goldschmied to promote projects unlikely to win the top accolade due to their size and budget (now less than £1 million). Its first winner was revealed in 1998 – the year Stephen Lawrence would have completed his Part 2 and when the Macpherson report found racism to be rife in the police force, specifically in relation to the failed prosecution of those accused of Lawrence’s murder.

Almost 20 years later, Lawrence would now be in his 40s. It is hard to know whether those who benefit from the £5,000 prize fund and additional £5,000 bursary for young social and ethnic minority architects recognise the tragic series of events behind its foundation. ‘There has been a generational change,’ says Goldschmied. ‘Many don’t even know where the prize came from.’

These projects prove that good architecture can defy a small budget, and demonstrate innovation and a drive to push the industry forward

But with well-established practices winning the prize, is it less relevant to emerging talent? Last year, after missing out on the Stirling Prize for its Peabody housing scheme, Níall McLaughlin Architects landed the Stephen Lawrence Prize for a small fishing hut in Hampshire.

Many on this year’s list are well-known names – Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, Sarah Wigglesworth Architects, Ash Sakula and Coffey Architects – the last of which previously won the prize in 2011 for an extension to a London school. But also on the shortlist are the relatively unknown Tsuruta Architects, along with Henning Stummel Architects, while the FCBS project was in fact self-initiated and completed by architectural assistants in the office.

As a whole, the shortlist, with its wide range of projects, offers a snapshot of the kind of work being undertaken by most of the profession, while commercial office schemes and high-end commissions are reserved for the big boys.

That is what gives this prize its edge. These projects prove that good architecture can defy a small budget, and demonstrate innovation and a drive to push the industry forward. Look at Ash Sakula’s prototype housing scheme – it has built three houses for an amazing £600,000. The projects are also more fun – take FCBS’s rotating observatory and artists’ studio, which was also shortlisted for the AJ Small Projects Award. For that the architects are deserving of the prize money – winnings no longer offered by the Stirling Prize.

‘A £5,000 prize is unheard of in the architectural world,’ says Philip Gumuchdjian, chair of the RIBA Awards Group and twice winner of the Stephen Lawrence Prize. ‘It is a fantastic award, which is very much overlooked. It is the second most important UK architecture prize after the Stirling.’

For most of the winners, it is about more than the prize money

But for most of the winners, it is about more than the money. ‘When I won for the Thinktank [in 2003] it was the first project I did as my own practice,’ recalls Gumuchdjian. ‘Winning gave confidence and encouraged the practice to go forward.’

‘It gave our practice recognition and an overall positive perception,’ adds Yeoryia Manolopoulou, whose practice AY Architects won the prize for its first small public building back in 2013.

And 2006 winner Alison Brooks comments: ‘What is important is the affirmation: that an architectural experiment, and the execution of that concept, stands up to the scrutiny of accomplished, critical peers.

‘The accolades are significant for your practice CV – they help you on to competition long and shortlists. Small project awards prove to any client that you can build, and that there may be great achievement at the end of a demanding, experimental project.’

But Denizen Works founder Murray Kerr hoped for more work to roll in after his house for his parents on the Scottish Isle of Tiree (pictured) won the award in 2014.

‘One outcome I had hoped that might be more forthcoming was invitations to competitions,’ says Kerr. ‘Perhaps I just have to be patient and someone reading this will extend an invite.’

For this year’s chosen shortlist, we can only hope that a flurry of extra commissions will come in. As for the winner, the judges’ decision will be tough. Any one of these projects is good enough to win it. What’s my bet? I’d like to see the Observatory by FCBS bag the prize but on the night I reckon Tsuruta Architects’ House of Trace will clinch it.

Previous winners 

2015 The Fishing Hut, Hampshire by Níall McLaughlin Architects

2014 House No 7, Isle of Tiree by Denizen Works

2013 Montpelier Community Nursery, London by AY Architects

2012 King’s Grove, London by Duggan Morris Architects

2011 St Patrick’s School Library and Music Room, London by Coffey Architects

2010 Artists’ House, London by Gumuchdjian Architects

2009 El Ray, Dungeness by Simon Conder Associates

2008 The Sackler Crossing, London by John Pawson

2007 Wooda Auditorium, Cornwall by David Sheppard Architects

2006 Wrap House, London by Alison Brooks Architects

2005 House ,Clonakilty, by Níall McLaughlin Architects

2004 Vista, Dungeness by Simon Conder Associates

2003 Think Tank, Skibbereen by Gumuchdjian Architects

2002 Westborough Cardboard Building, Westcliff-on-Sea by Cottrell & Vermeulen

2001 Hatherley Studio, Winchester by Richard Rose-Casemore

2000 Kielder Belvedere, Northumberland by Softroom

1999 Roche Court Sculpture Gallery, Wiltshire by Munkenbeck + Marshall

1998 Terrasson, France by Ian Ritchie Architects

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