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RIBA Stirling Prize: The great British build off?

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What does the Stirling Prize mean to the general public? asks Richard Godwin

I’ve often thought that if there were any logic in these matters, the RIBA Stirling Prize ceremony would not only be restored to prime time TV, but its ratings would comfortably eclipse The Great British Bake Off. The tabloids would spend the run-up campaigning for their favoured architect (‘ADJAYE WE GO!’ ‘ZAHA SNUBBED’ etc). Fashionistas would speculate about what David Chipperfield and Norman Foster would be wearing. As the presenters – James Corden? Sue Perkins? – unveiled the results, we’d all shout at the screen.

Architecture has a far more intimate relationship with our day-to-day lives

I should say I’m not some architecture pseud. My feelings are more to do with the inescapability of the form. The Oscars have the glamour, but it’s not as if the Best Picture will be playing on a loop outside your house for the next century. The Turner Prize and Booker Prize still excite controversy, but no one is frogmarched into art galleries or forced to read novels at gunpoint (at least not until the next round of education reforms). I suppose the Brit Awards serve a wider social purpose, in that you’ll probably hear the winners on a shop PA system while you’re out buying pants one day. But architecture has a far more intimate relationship with our day-to-day lives. We all want to live somewhere that looks and functions better, surely.

So even if you accept that awards in general are a bit silly – choosing between a school, a cancer treatment facility and luxury apartments is as absurd as choosing between a nectarine, an atlas and a dildo – the award still has a valuable purpose in focusing attention. I’m probably not going to play football by the Burntwood School in Wandsworth as the dusk frowns across Allford Hall Monaghan Morris’s concrete windowscape. Hopefully I won’t have cause to visit Reiach and Hall’s homely Maggie’s Cancer Care Centre in Lanarkshire. It seems unlikely I’ll be sipping blanc des blancs in a panic room at Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners’ NEO Bankside luxury apartment development any time soon. All are on this year’s shortlist however and their architecture carries ideas and emotions that really shouldn’t leave the general public indifferent.

Accordia in Cambridge - the 2008 Stirling Prize winner

Accordia in Cambridge - the 2008 Stirling Prize winner

Has the Stirling Prize fulfilled the role of sparking debate about all this? Well, the fact that Britain’s most prominent architecture prize is only in its 20th year suggests that these are not debates that are deeply embedded in our culture. The divide is not helped, either, by a certain tendency among architects to aloofness and inscrutability (‘The building isn’t dysfunctional, they’re just using it WRONG’). In general, however, the Stirling Prize has been true to James Stirling’s tradition of compassionate Modernism. Only the 2004 winner, Foster + Partners’ St Mary Axe (the Gherkin) falls into the ‘prestige skyscraper’ category, and time has rendered it likeable compared to the steel pranks that have gone up around it. Only six of 19 winners have been in London. Nine of them have had an educational purpose. But the fact that only one of them has been a housing project – the Accordia in Cambridge, the 2008 winner – tells its own story. Why is so little esteem attached to the buildings where we spend most of our time: our homes?

Architectural décollage means that when the buildings on the current shortlist were at the planning stage, no one could have known how burning an issue housing would become in 2015. Still, the inclusion of NEO Bankside – where apartments go for between £1.5 and £4.5 million – would raise eyebrows at the best of times. The development stands out on a rather civic-minded shortlist a bit like, well, an obnoxious piece of private bling outside a genuinely popular art attraction (Tate Modern). 

Inside an apartment at Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners' NEO Bankside

Inside an apartment at Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners’ NEO Bankside

Its inclusion is all the more controversial since the developers avoided their obligation to provide 40 per cent affordable housing by claiming that the price per square metre that the flats would sell for was around half what they did eventually go for; social housing campaigners have vowed to picket the RIBA in protest.

Were the judges really so impressed by those Meccano struts?

Then again, if the London riverside is to become a sort of trophy cabinet for very rich people to flaunt their assets in absentia, maybe this building does indeed ‘excellently meet the needs of their users’ as per the Stirling Prize mission? And perhaps the affordable housing jiggery-pokery should be recognised as a ‘contribution to the evolution of architecture’ in that it proves that, by attaching a big name, developers can get away with all sorts of nonsense (see also the Battersea Power Station development). Or were the judges really so impressed by those Meccano struts?

NEO Bankside is the polar opposite of Níall McLaughlin Architects’ Peabody Estate addendum not far away at Darbishire Place, a £1.8 million social housing project, which fits so modestly into its surroundings that I missed it when I went on a reconnaissance mission. Its value, I hope, will be measured not in the number of people taking selfies in front of it but in the subtle improvement it brings to the lives of its residents – improvements that there is no reason not to replicate.

Still, what these two buildings show in their contrasting way is that architecture is really the art of compromise, of working within the (often pretty boring) constraints imposed by developers, budgets, clients and politics, to design as good a place as possible. It would be nice to think that the architects would count the general public as being on their side in that fight to raise standards, and the Stirling judges too. As Ted Cullinan once said: ‘We have enough masterpieces; what we need is a better standard of ordinary.’

Richard Godwin is a columnist for the London Evening Standard and feature writer

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