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Essay: What does winning the Stirling Prize do for a practice?

Stirling prize 2016 peter st john (4)
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Does picking up the UK’s top architecture prize lead to fame and riches? Or is the warm glow of peer recognition the main reward? Rob Wilson spoke to past winners

This year’s shortlist of six projects for the RIBA Stirling Prize has elicited the usual sniping comments about the choice of projects. Why not Herzog & de Meuron’s Tate Modern Switch House, a big-beast scheme with public-pleasing wow-factor, rather than Rogers Stirk Harbour’s relatively retiring extension for the British Museum, for instance? There are even calls of ‘right architect, wrong scheme’: why didn’t 6a’s gutsy student housing scheme for Churchill College make the cut, rather than its photogenic studio for Juergen Teller? 

This is as it should be. Debate is healthy, and exactly what the Stirling Prize should provoke. It holds up a mirror to the current field of architecture and its concerns. So the relatively blank sheet of dRMM’s Hastings Pier perfectly reflects the current interest in creating crafted communal public space with pop-up potential. It’s also, alongside Command of the Oceans, the other maritime shortlisted project, a fine exemplar of the current focus on incisive, sensitive retrofit, which is reinvigorating buildings, structures and places. The City of Glasgow College City Campus meanwhile epitomises how education is the new culture when it comes to civic-scaled buildings that act as generators for urban renewal. Even where the shortlist fails to reflect significant societal trends (Amin Taha’s apartments project, for instance, is a fine scheme but isn’t one of the full-blooded social housing projects of the moment) it may raise hackles, but it also raises debate.

It gave clients huge confidence in the practice and helped when dealing with local planning authorities 

While truly spectacular projects might be absent this year, sustainability, on the other hand, has received a welcome boost with the appointment of Simon Sturgis as non-voting sustainability adviser to the jury, shifting the emphasis away from an immediate beauty contest towards the projects’ whole life.

Taking this longer view, what is the effect of winning the Stirling for architects themselves? The immediate benefit, it appears, is not fame but more the warm glow of peer recognition. ‘After 25 years of practice it felt like the quality of our work had been recognised by the architectural community,’ says Paul Monaghan of AHMM, which won in 2015 for Burntwood School.

Chris Wilkinson of WilkinsonEyre, winner in both 2001 and 2002 for Magna Rotherham and the Gateshead Millennium Bridge respectively, agrees. ‘It’s great to receive recognition from one’s peers and it certainly helped boost our confidence as a practice,’ he says. Adam Caruso, of Caruso St John, last year’s winners for the Newport Street Gallery remarks: ‘One feels satisfaction that one’s work is being recognised as something special. It’s a vindication of the direction that we’ve pursued.’

Burntwood at a distance

Burntwood at a distance

AHMM’s Burntwood School in south-west London won the 2015 Stirling Prize

But commercially? Here it doesn’t seem to have much immediate effect. ‘I’d say things pretty much carried on as normal,’ says Monaghan. ‘It had less effect than perhaps we expected!’ agrees Caruso. ‘Commercially it has not been very significant. Maybe now, a year later, there are things happening that are connected to winning the prize.’

‘Winning the Stirling Prize for Accordia did increase our kudos as a practice,’ says Keith Bradley of Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios. ‘But I don’t think it significantly changed our trajectory.’ FCBS was joint winner for Accordia with Maccreanor Lavington, Alison Brooks and Grant Associates in 2008. And Bradley sees its value in contributing to the architectural debate. ‘We were pleased that for the first time a residential project had been acknowledged with the prize,’ he says. ‘This set up a wider discussion about the importance of high-quality housing. It felt we’d influenced attitudes outside the architectural scene.’

Indeed, in general the benefits of winning are often slow-burning. ‘It gave both existing and new clients huge confidence in the practice and helped when dealing with local planning authorities,’ says Monaghan. Paul Williams of Stanton Williams, winner in 2012 for its Sainsbury Laboratory, agrees: ‘It enhanced our reputation … being “a Stirling Prize-winning practice” rubberstamps a perceived level of high achievement.’

Winning the Stirling Prize did increase our kudos, but I don’t think it changed our trajectory

But there are gripes, particularly when it comes to the prize’s role in the wider public appreciation of good architecture. ‘The one thing that has diminished over the years is the TV coverage and the wider exposure that it gave for architecture to the public,’ says Monaghan. ‘I still miss when the whole awards were broadcast live on Saturday night against Strictly! ’ Bradley adds: ‘The RIBA needs to promote the extraordinary work of UK architects more effectively using the Stirling Prize tag.’

But there is little dispute that it remains the gold standard of awards. ‘The Stirling Prize is still the most prestigious prize in British architecture,’ says Monaghan. ‘It’s a great signal of current trends and thinking.’ 

Williams concurs: ‘All Stirling finalists are chosen from a rigorous selection process that involves all judges visiting the buildings and experiencing them at first hand. It’s a refreshing model in a culture where the digital and printed image seem to inform opinion and influence journalistic criticism and preoccupations.’ Touché. 

This article first appeared in the RIBA Stirling Prize 2017 issue – click here to buy a copy

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