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Stephen Lawrence Prize: Skill imagination and sheer persistence

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Marco Goldschmied reflects on the past 17 years of the Stephen Lawrence Prize and recalls his visits to some of the most notable buildings to have been shortlisted

It seems only a moment ago that Hugh Pearman and I agreed that the first Stephen Lawrence Prize should be awarded to Ian Ritchie for the Terrasson greenhouse, set within a 5ha landscape designed by Kathryn Gustafson. At the time Ian said it was the award that he valued above any others.

That was 1998, the year Stephen Lawrence would have completed his Part 2 and, following the investigation of his murder five years earlier, the year the McPherson report found racism was prevalent in the police force, specifically in relation to the failed prosecution of the culprits.

At the same time I was judging the £20,000 Stirling Prize, just launched with the support of the Sunday Times. It was obvious from the outset this was always going to be an award for high-profile projects with prize money going to architects who were probably already millionaires; smaller projects and younger architects were unlikely to ever even be considered for the Stirling Prize. I felt this left a significant gap in the recognition and promotion of talent in the profession. Stephen’s mother, Doreen, was also keen to found a bursary for architecture students in his memory.  These events were the catalyst for the Marco Goldschmied (MG) Foundation deciding to launch the annual £5,000 Stephen Lawrence Prize and its £5,000 bursary.

I am awestruck by the skill, imagination and sheer persistence displayed

Looking back now, as we come to the 18th year of judging, I am awestruck by the skill, imagination and sheer persistence displayed, not only by the architects of the past 17 years’ winners but also by the architects of many other shortlisted projects that are outstanding achievements in their own right. Next year the MG Foundation will create a comprehensive website to recognise not only the winners but all the shortlisted runners-up.

The visits to all the winners have been special. My most enduring memories range from the visit, with Softroom’s project architect Josephine Pletts, to the elegant shelter, jumping out like a surprise, stainless steel jack-in-the-box, in the wilds of the Kielder forest, to Philip Gumuchdjian’s magical waterside studio in Skibbereen, and to Niall McLaughlin’s house, both on the coast in Western Ireland. Other memorable visits were to Simon Conder’s quirky neoprene-clad house on the shore of the English Channel in the shadow of the Dungeness B nuclear power station; to Duggan Morris’s exquisite hidden jewel of a house in Peckham; and to John Pawson’s subtle pedestrian bridge in the sensitive World Heritage Site at Kew.

Although standalone buildings have won in 12 of the past 17 years, the projects that involved extensions to existing buildings have also all been remarkable: from Munkenbeck and Marshall’s elegant glazed art gallery link at Roche Court in Salisbury, to private house extensions by Alison Brooks and Philip Gumuchdjian in Chiswick and Kensington respectively. Not least in this group are two school extensions: Cottrell & Vermeulen’s witty and ingenious cardboard structured art room in Southend and Phil Coffey’s thoughtful long-term strategy for upgrading and extending a group of run-down 1960s school buildings in Kentish Town. 

In addition to the 17 winners, there have been some exceptional close-seconds, which might well have won in another year. A house in the Brecon Beacons by Sarah Wigglesworth, Carmody Groake’s 7/7 memorial in Hyde Park and Niall McLaughlin’s pier café at Deal ran the winners very close.

Another really memorable shortlisted entry was the Martello tower in Suffolk, converted into a single house with extraordinary 50cm diameter light ‘conduits’ drilled through the 4m-thick brickwork walls. Amazingly bonkers.

In the great tradition of the RIBA Awards, Doreen Lawrence and I, together with various previous winners, have, between us, visited every building shortlisted. There have been about 100 to date over the years as far afield as the Western shores of Ireland and Scotland to Catania in Sicily.

After all these years I shouldn’t still be surprised at how crucial these visits are

After all these years I shouldn’t still be surprised at how crucial these visits are. But I am. Alluring photos full of promise, when visited, sometimes turn into disappointing buildings, and vice versa. Often the difference is in the smallest details. The technical skill in elegantly resolving tricky junctions and complex geometries, or using innovative techniques, can make all the difference. Images alone can never convey this fully. Doubtless the seven we are visiting in September will also surprise us.

So many current awards are judged on the cheap, based on juries passing final judgment around a coffee table, viewing only stills or videos, which tell you little or nothing about a building’s texture, resonance, smell and physical context. My particular bêtes noires are weasel ‘night shots’ that hide ugly proportions and unresolved details.

Considering the economic upheavals of the past 17 years I am glad to be able to say the Stephen Lawrence Prize, unlike Stirling and the plethora of other awards that have come and gone since, is unique in having retained its annual £5,000 prize money to the architects and the matching Stephen Lawrence Trust architecture bursaries. It is a sobering thought that Stephen would now have turned 40 and only getting into his architectural stride. Nothing can make up for his untimely death; but the collection of wonderful projects carrying awards in his memory is, I hope, building a quiet but significant memorial.

Marco Goldschmied set up the Marco Goldschmied Foundation, which instituted the Stephen Lawrence Prize

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