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dRMM Stirling Prize interview: ‘Sometimes you don’t need a building’

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Alex de Rijke of RIBA Stirling Prize-winning practice dRMM talks to the AJ’s Richard Waite about its Hastings Pier scheme, describing it as ‘less of a building and more of a platform for future architecture’. Photography by Jim Stephenson

What does this Stirling Prize victory mean to you as a practice?

You probably want me to say it is ‘justice’ [as we have been shortlisted twice before]. But actually one doesn’t do projects for awards. You do it for the users.

Having said that, it obviously feels great, because we are being recognised for doing something that is unusual, perhaps, and for the evidence of our lateral thinking – which is an important intellectual pursuit.

And it’s a public project. It is one which was born out of a local regeneration initiative. It is a community-instigated project. So it has a lot of meaning.

It also has meaning for me personally, because it is a demonstration of the [successful] use of timber in the public realm. This coincides with my own particular research and my professional ambition.

Does the win also celebrate a more entrepreneurial approach to architecture?

The project has significance for the profession, and perhaps those entering the profession, by showing that the changing role of the architect is a reality.

We can embrace an aspect of delivery of the built environment beyond the traditional idea that we simply detail and design buildings.

On this project we helped the client every step of the way, including developing the brief with user groups and the local consultation. We helped generate the budget and we helped spend it. In a way we were agents for change.

How do you think this result, for the building of the year, will be received by the public? There isn’t architecture with a big ‘A’ here.

All architects are in the business of defining space and therefore this project is not so different. It is just that there is more outside space than inside space.

What do you think the 2017 Stirling Prize shortlist said about the state of British architecture? It seemed ‘quieter’ than in previous years.

All the shortlisted schemes were fascinating because they revealed such care, such concern and such dedication to the question of providing of inspiring space for the people that use them. They all have that in common.

We just did it differently. We spent the money in providing a conceptual basis for future architecture as opposed to the here and now.

In this project we were more concerned with the idea of free public space that could support future activity. 

Part of your question alludes, perhaps, to a Zeitgeist in which people are tired of iconic buildings. Maybe that’s also why the scheme was recognised: because sometimes you don’t need a building. Sometimes you just need architecture that is made possible by other means.

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Will the Stirling Prize win help with future phases of the project, including the proposed moving canopy?

Local pride in the project is entirely justified. There are a great deal of shareholders committed to this project through the charity’s crowdfunding programme in addition to the lottery funding.

You don’t finish a project like a pier

Many people still give, on a voluntary basis, to the project which means it has to have a future. You don’t finish a project like a pier. It is subject to the vicissitudes to the weather, the seasons and the economy. It never ends. This is simply phase one.

The pier was the bookmakers’ favourite and won the public poll. Did you have a gut feeling this was your year to win the Stirling Prize?

We have always done architecture that somehow bridges the profession’s ambitions and the pleasure of people, and I’m proud of that. The fact that its popular with people means a lot.

You could say all voting and judging processes have their foibles. But isn’t it great when they correlate?

Would you have changed anything about the project?

If I could, I would have changed the weather. We could have done without a storm [which took away part of our budget]. We might be seeing the new canopy now if we hadn’t had that winter storm.

In terms of what dRMM could have done, no. We tried our best. We tried to be flexible. We moved as the goalposts moved. So no, no regrets.

What did you make of the other Stirling finalists?

I did resolve to go and look at [Baynes and Mitchell’s] Chatham Dockyard scheme because I love big sheds and they’ve made a very sensitive intervention there. But I’ll probably go and look at them all. The quality is quite clear.

We’re at a moment where the profession is having to reinvent itself

How would you sum up the state of the profession?

We’re at a moment where the profession is having to reinvent itself. Those who embrace change will win. One can’t resist its inevitablitliy – one has to help influence change.

So I’m positive about the role of the architect and, when I see students’ work, I know I’m right to be positive.

And will this win help that reinvention?

I hope it does signify that, when faced with the seemingly impossible, the impossible can happen. It has been that kind of project.

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