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RIBA Stirling Prize: The award that has changed cabbies’ minds

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The Stirling Prize has touched the public imagination and helps make modern architecture more popular, says Tony Chapman

I was recently asked to speak about the RIBA Stirling Prize at the Architecture Biennale – the other one, in Jersey (still, a man can dream). With an entire morning to fill I had to do some serious reflecting on my time in architecture, something that has occupied half my professional life, the other half being taken up by television. The two halves came together with the Stirling Prize.

In 1989, when the Prince of Wales was banging on about his Visions of Britain, I went to the BBC and suggested, in the interests of balance, they might let me make a film putting the opposite point of view, the Modernist perspective. ‘OK,’ they said. ‘Here’s 30 minutes.’ The PoW got 50. So much for balance.

My film starred Max Hutchinson, then president of  the RIBA. We took him round London in a cab and showed him the buildings the prince had castigated. Unsurprisingly, the cabbie sided with the prince.

I have filmed almost all the 130 buildings shortlisted for the Stirling Prize since its inception in 1996 and interviewed all the winning architects. I wanted to show the winning schemes in my BBC piece, but there were gaps in the archive, so I returned to some buildings to make new films. In a taxi en route from St Mary Axe to Richard Rogers’ office in Hammersmith, the cabbie asked me what I was filming. When told, the cabbie said: ‘Oh I love the Gherkin. And the Shard.’ He said he’d learnt about modern architecture from listening to Max on BBC Radio London and learned to ‘look up’. And wasn’t it sad about Max’s stroke? It was – a broadcaster lives by his voice.

Then, a week later, in another cab from Will Alsop’s Battersea office, the cabbie had the radio on. It was Max and back to his dulcet best. And this cabbie loved modern architecture, too. Amazing. We must be doing something right – at the BBC, at the RIBA, at Channel 4. And I like to think some of it is down to the Stirling Prize.

In the prize’s second year Jim won it from the grave

We named the prize for Jim Stirling largely because he was recently deceased and therefore couldn’t enter – or so we thought. The first prize went to a president-to-be (I guess I have measured out my life in presidents, as TS Eliot nearly said) Stephen Hodder, with whom I was also sharing a platform in Jersey. In the prize’s second year, Jim won it from the grave, with Michael Wilford’s help. Wilford waved the £20,000 cheque (not the trophy, oddly) and declared: ‘This is for Jim.’

Then in 2000 we landed a TV deal and that’s when the prize really came of age. It wasn’t the super-smooth Grand Designs style of production with Kevin McCloud; it was rough and ready with Waldemar Januszczak and his production company, ZCZ. They chickened out of going live four weeks before the gig, meaning they had ample time on the night to play around with their links: Waldemar’s and the ones to the outside broadcast van, meaning they were running more than two hours late.

They told the live audience at the event that the judges couldn’t make up their minds, when in fact the panel were blamelessly getting drunk in an upper room at the Science Museum, having reached a decision hours earlier – though not half as drunk as Will Alsop, the winner with Peckham Library, who, during his acceptance speech, mysteriously told the planners of Kensington and Chelsea to go and fuck themselves.

RIBA Stirling Prize 2000 winner: Peckham Library by Alsop and Störmer

RIBA Stirling Prize 2000 winner: Peckham Library by Alsop and Störmer

‘Have planners got any better?’ I asked him in a recent interview. ‘No,’ he said, ‘nor has architecture. It’s got boring. Architects have a duty to provide fun.’ And perhaps he is right: architecture has got a whole lot more serious over the 20 years of the Stirling Prize – more serious, more rigorous and, perversely perhaps, more popular. When asked at dinner parties what they do, architects no longer have to mumble: ‘Something to do with construction.’ Now they are the stars of the show.

Being on the shortlist is what counts

In Jersey I was going to talk about the ones that got away, the ones that might have won. But the start was delayed so I had to cut that 20 minutes. Maybe it’s for the best. And, anyway, being on the shortlist is what counts. Ask five-times shortlisted O’Donnell + Tuomey. On second thoughts, don’t. Ask Zaha, who, when I went over to commiserate with her after not winning with Phaeno, drew away and said: ‘I will never enter your awards again.’ She didn’t for a year, then went on to win twice, as Wilkinson Eyre and Rogers had done.

But I did talk – a lot – about the importance of the visit. Seeing buildings makes all the difference, and they’re always better or worse than you think they’re going to be.

Niall McLaughlin's Striling Prize-shortlisted chapel for Ripon Theological College in Cuddesdon, Oxfordshire

Niall McLaughlin’s 2013 Stirling Prize-shortlisted chapel for Ripon Theological College in Cuddesdon, Oxfordshire

I was asked to write a thousand words about the Stirling Prize; I could write a thousand pages. It’s touched me, it’s touched the shortlisted architects. In Jersey, Níall McLaughlin said of being shortlisted with his Bishop Edward King Chapel – one that did get away – that it had changed utterly the kinds of approaches he got from potential clients. But it has touched the public, too, which was half the point in the first place – to reward and promote. Even cabbies get architecture now.

So thanks, Max. Thanks to Hugh Pearman and the first sponsor, The Sunday Times, thanks RIBA Journal, and particular thanks to Paul Finch and the AJ, who all have helped make the Stirling Prize something its instigators Hugh, Jane Priestman, Marco Goldschmied and my predecessor Chris Palmer could never have dreamt of. Thanks Stephen Phillips, who helped broker our first Channel 4 deal and the BBC for their third year of partnership. Thank you Stella McCartney, Tracey Emin and Julian Barnes and all the other judges. Thank you for what you got right and sometimes wrong. Thanks everyone; it’s been a gas.

Tony Chapman is RIBA head of awards

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