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How to pick a Stirling Prize winner

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Rory Olcayto goes behind the scenes on the 2009 judges’ tour

The Stirling Prize is at a turning point. Is the best architecture to be judged on authorship, client satisfaction or collaboration? The winning building answers that question. More importantly, it will also signal to the world exactly what the profession stands for: service provision or cultural leadership. Would you be brave enough to make that decision?

When the jury convenes outside Kentish Town Health Centre on a bright September morning the task ahead is the one faced by all previous juries: how do you compare buildings which differ in typology, scale, cost and ambition? ‘The fact that projects aren’t categorised by size or type is what I like about the Stirling Prize,’ says jury chairman John Tuomey. ‘It’s about lasting architectural quality. It makes it into a bit of a job for the assessors, but then that’s the game.’

But ‘lasting architectural quality’ is an open-ended condition. Stephen Bates thinks the Allford Hall Monaghan Morris-designed building ‘has wonderful spatial qualities’ and senses the dynamic tension generated by the building’s tight fit on its plot. As Tuomey notes, ‘it is treacherously close to the trees’. Bates asks: ‘Am I looking at something where the architect has sought that tension? Or is it a compromise? I need to know.’

Thomas Heatherwick (pictured) says the centre is a ‘phenomenal achievement…Its success is more about how it works than how it looks. Clearly a lot of ideas were coming from the architect’s interaction with the client.’ Tuomey also picks up on the relationship’s ‘intensity’.

As the team leaves, the bigger challenge has already been framed. The jury wonders: ‘How much of a project is the brief? How much is the client? How much is the architect?’ Everyone agrees there needs to be more debate about ‘what we are actually judging’ .

This jury – which is completed by outgoing CABE chairman John Sorrell and Benedetta Tagliabue, the architect behind the Scottish Parliament, winner of the 2005 Stirling Prize – is not the kind to wildly debate what it has just seen, as the 2007 jury did, for example. There will be only one group meeting in the four days they spend together, and only after all buildings have been seen.

During each visit, judges discuss matters discretely, if at all, and journeys between buildings are a time to talk of other things. There is a moment on the train back to London from Liverpool when Heatherwick and Bates begin to discuss the shortlist but they very quickly say: ‘Stop. Enough.’ 

Before entering the Aldemanbury Square office block, architect Eric Parry takes the jury on a tour of surrounding streets. He wants them to see the building through cracks in London’s townscape. Bates loves this approach. ‘Being encouraged to see it in context is impressive,’ he says.

The presentation is dominated by Parry rather than his client. ‘It is interesting that a megaproject like this, for a corporate player, has an author,’ says Heatherwick. And while one judge thought it ‘beautifully crafted in its setting’ another wondered if a fully air-conditioned office block could ever be named winner. After just two visits, it is clear that there are significant divides among the judges. 

The next building is Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partner’s Maggie’s Centre, a cancer care hospice in Hammersmith, West London. Richard Rogers himself awaits them, dressed in trademark bright colours, relaxing on a seat and framed by a feature window. Ivan Harbour and the project architect are also present. Such stage-management is a crucial part of any jury visit. At Kentish Town, it is modest and subtle: strategically placed croissants are deployed. Later, when visiting Liverpool One, one judge suspects the jury is being shadowed by the presentation team to ensure no misunderstandings of the unwieldy project – it’s a masterplan, not a building – emerge.

For Bates, who lives near Maggie’s, it is a chance to get beyond the ‘orange rendered wall’. Heatherwick says the ‘use of colour feels Mexican, like Luis Barragán.’ But one judge questions the right of Maggie’s to claim the high ground on architecture’s impact on well-being. ‘Aren’t subjectivity and emotion a valid part of any architectural design process?’

Two days later the jury travels to see the Liverpool One masterplan. One judge finds it difficult to understand why BDP’ s project has even been shortlisted, saying it is ‘as bizarre as the RIBA awarding Barcelona the gold medal’. But another disagrees. ‘I think it’s appropriate for strategic thinking to be judged. It’s more stimulating as a judge to try and unpick it.’

The next day the jury flies to Spain to see RSHP’s other shortlisted project, Bodegas Protos, a winery ‘pocketed into the shadow of a town’, in Tuomey’s words. At the magnificent castle overlooking the town and winery, Tuomey is struck by the ‘extraordinary control given to the roofscape,’ and Heatherwick finds the attention to detail ‘impressive in its consistency’. But the question is raised as to whether the jury is witnessing anything new. Bates, meanwhile, is thrilled to find his favourite red wine is produced at Protos.

With just one more building to see, the jury develops a degree of unity. They head to Barcelona, where Tagliabue’s firm EMBT is based, and retire to her apartment (‘an ongoing architectural project’ ) for a meal and drinks. ‘We didn’t talk about the shortlist. But we did talk a lot about Benedetta’s house,’ says Heatherwick. ‘In fact we discussed awarding the Stirling Prize to it!’ 

In this bohemian environment, a breakthrough of sorts emerges. They relax in a new room added recently to the apartment, with a swimming pool, fireplace and hammocks. Tuomey remembers it as ‘a trip to paradise. Very exotic. We all got terribly excited’.

Tagliabue’s influence reinforces the cultural dimension of architectural practice, moving it away from notions of process and management. The relaxed environment seems to cast a spell. ‘The evening we spent there will have a big influence on how we choose the winner,’ another judge claims.

The next day the jury flies to Denmark to view Tony Fretton’s Fuglsang art museum. It’s a long drive but on arrival, the climate and quality of light are perfect. ‘A vast sky. An endless horizon. It looks like a landscape painting,’ says Tuomey. ‘Another strong, dominant client,’ says Bates, after the presentation, as the jury begins its first group discussion, now fully aware of the impact their decision will have on British architecture.

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