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Support builds for RIBA to launch UK-only medal

RIBA Royal Gold Medal 5
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There is growing demand for a major new award that recognises British and UK-based architects

Those backing the move want the accolade to sit alongside the RIBA’s existing Royal Gold Medal – the institute’s 167-year-old flagship award, which recognises those who have made a ‘substantial contribution to international architecture’.

Last month octogenarian Brazilian architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha was named as the 169th recipient of the medal.

Although only the second architect from Brazil to collect the award, Mendes da Rocha is the 14th winner of the medal from overseas in the past 20 years. Yet, even before news broke of his triumph, double Stirling Prize nominee Níall McLaughlin was raising questions about the remit and purpose of the RIBA Royal Gold Medal.

Speaking about the lack of recognition for prolific and versatile post-war practice Ahrends, Burton and Koralek (ABK) at the launch of the Twentieth Century Society’s new book 50 Architects 50 Buildings, the architect suggested the RIBA set up a separate ‘medal for significant contribution to British architecture’.

‘For most countries, like Australia, this would be their Gold Medal,’ explains McLaughlin. ‘The RIBA Royal Gold Medal has become something else, competing with the Pritzker Prize to be the premier international accolade for architects. This, I presume, answers the RIBA’s need to feel that it is a global brand with worldwide reach. It does, however, leave a significant gap in the nation’s architectural life.

Many brilliant British architects do not receive adequate acknowledgement

‘Many brilliant British architects do not receive adequate acknowledgement for their life’s achievement, at least not in the fashion that is common elsewhere.’

Among those who have yet to receive the Gold Medal are Nicholas Grimshaw (76), Terry Farrell (78), Eva Jiřičná (77), Will Alsop (68) and Michael Wilford (78).

Aj riba medals final.jpeg

Despite his criticisms, McLaughlin believes the RIBA Royal Gold Medal should be left to go ‘toe to toe with the Pritzker’. However, he urges the RIBA to strike a second medal for those who have made outstanding contributions to the UK’s architectural culture.

Some exceptionally talented individuals, he acknowledges, could win both medals.

McLaughlin, who was born in Geneva and is an honorary fellow of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland, rejects any criticism that the move would represent a ‘provincial regression’.

‘Perhaps nowadays, it is easier for a disinterested EU national immigrant like me to say it, rather than one of your own,’ he concludes.

’I get more recongition in Canada’

Will Alsop

Will Alsop of aLL Design agrees, and has joined in the calls for a new national award.

He says: ‘I’m not bothered whether the Royal Gold Medal winners have been British or non-British. But actually shouldn’t the Gold Medal really be the Platinum Medal, because it is global? The Gold Medal should be peer recognition of the best British architects.

‘Over the years I’ve tried to challenge what architecture can be. But do I get any recognition in the UK? No. Fuck all. I get more recognition in Canada.’

Alsop also criticises the selection process for the Royal Gold Medal and its focus on architects who are ‘very old’.

‘When Norman Foster and Richard Rogers won it, they were still quite young [48 and 53 respectively],’ he points out.

‘The presidents at the RIBA [at the time] had a certain bravado and the balls to try and promote younger talent.’

Although the RIBA Stirling Prize has been limited to UK-only projects since 2015, there is no separate annual gong for the best architects in this country.

But 2015 Stirling Prize winner Simon Allford, co-founder of Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, insists there is still a place for the Royal Gold Medal, arguing that it fits with the RIBA’s educational and awards programmes and its increasing global reach.

There is at the least a perception that we no longer celebrate British architectural talents

However, he admits he shares McLaughlin’s concerns. ‘There is at the least a perception that we no longer celebrate British architectural talents even when of global importance,’ he says. ‘As the Gold Medal promotes, as well as celebrates, talent, perhaps we should return to what I am told was the old but unwritten system of alternating one British and one international architect.

‘A glimpse at the last 20 years suggests that system – if it ever existed – has been long forgotten.’

Pre-empting complaints that a return to this system could be seen as parochial, Allford stresses that such a rotation would in fact ‘recognise the B in RIBA and respond to the criticism that a prophet is not without honour except in his own town.’

Yet former RIBA president Jack Pringle denies the current selection process for the Royal Gold Medal is flawed. ‘The status of the Royal Gold Medal depends on it being global – that’s as it should be,’ he says. ‘If 30 per cent go to Brits, we are doing rather well.’

But he adds: ‘There may [though] be a case for a BritArch of the year.’



Meanwhile, former RIBA president Owen Luder has raised concerns about how precisely the medal is decided, namely the recommendation process and the final approval by the Queen – or her successor.

‘The medal is the Royal Gold Medal,’ he says. ‘At some time in the future Prince Charles will almost certainly be the sovereign who may be faced with a recommendation from the RIBA for an architect responsible for producing architecture which represents the ‘type’ he has publicly rejected.’

And, while RIBA councillor John Assael admits the Royal Gold Medal has ‘enhanced the RIBA’s global reputation’, he says he has a ‘huge problem’ with the institute’s focus on product, rather than process.

‘The RIBA Awards system is too narrow and must widen its scope,’ he argues. ‘What about awards that measure a building’s performance after 10 years? What about an award for the architect who has done the most for charity or research? I could go on.’

’I have generally been against the proliferation of awards, as it devalues them generally’

Ruth Reed

Responding to the calls for an additional gong, RIBA president Jane Duncan says: ‘Awards and their criteria for selection always generate debate and opinion, so it is interesting that the Royal Gold Medal and the idea of an additional award specifically for a UK architect, is the focus of this current discussion.

’From its outset the award has been a global prize, but always included the UK – in its first year it was given to an English architect, in its second year to an Italian. I am proud of its international nature and of the many other ways we are able to recognise UK talent – for example through our awards and our RIBA Fellow category – but I appreciate that there are lots of views.’ 

Former RIBA president Ruth Reed is not convinced any new medals or prizes are needed.

‘I have generally been against the proliferation of awards, as it devalues them generally,’ she says. ‘I also have no problem in recognising great international architects; it would be strange if the RIBA did not acknowledge their excellence.’

Reed believes, however, that the ‘greatest inhibitor’ to awarding the medal to home-grown talent is ‘the perceived difficulty in awarding practices’.

‘The notable British architects of my generation are in practices of excellence and we need to make it easier to recognise this team effort,’ she says.

‘Perhaps a review of the criteria will put more British practices on the wall in 66 Portland Place.’ 

A selection of outstanding British-based architects who have not won the RIBA Royal Gold Medal

Nicholas Grimshaw Níall McLaughlin
Terry Farrell Graeme Stirk
Eva Jiřičná Ivan Harbour
Eric Parry Alan Stanton
Will Alsop Paul Williams
David Adjaye Michael Wilford
Peter St John Chris Wilkinson
Adam Caruso Jim Eyre








Patrick Inglis, director of Inglis Basrashi Loddo
As a passionate believer in the value of good design, I strongly support calls for a new RIBA medal for significant contribution to British Architecture. However, rather than being a nationalist award only for British architects, this should be an award open to all nationalities, but for a body of work built in the UK.

This award would both support excellence in architecture in Britain and reinforce the idea that we are still an open society ready to welcome and celebrate talent, wherever it comes from.

Justin Nicholls, co-founder of Fathom Architects
All credit should go to the RIBA and its members for having an award – the Gold medal – that is so highly regarded on the international stage. This is critical in giving British architects an international stage to work upon and enables us attract the best international talent to our schools.

While a world stage is vital, championing British talent is also an important role of the RIBA and shouldn’t be neglected. I therefore concur with Níall’s thoughts that the RIBA should introduce a medal to recognise contribution to British Architecture. This net should be cast wide to include an individual, a practice or an academic institution, enabling the efforts and skills of the wider architectural team to be recognised not just the ‘star’ architect.

’Other creative industries make the distinction’

Clearly, other creative industries make the distinction. In the world of advertising, the BTAA awards lifetime achievement in British advertising in both their British Arrows and Craft Awards. If we look at the film industry BAFTA, while they have their Academy Fellowship which is open to all, they also have an annual award for Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema. The first recipients were the special visual effects team for Superman, and others include, Mike Leigh, Kenneth Branagh, Derek Jarman and Channel 4 Films.

Paul Stallan, co-founder of Stallan-Brand
There is a space for an award that specifically identifies the good work of a British architect. An award that celebrates the art of architecture – a Turner Prize or Mercury Prize equivalent if you like. An award that identifies profound work that might be controversial, difficult, beautiful, collaborative, conceptual, brave, gentle. An award that is punk but also of great significance. The currency of the future is ideas and restless enquiry. Let us prioritise this.

Alternately the RIBA Gold Medal should continue to celebrate architectural achievement regardless of nationality or practice location. Looking beyond our national borders for inspiration, to recognise and reward excellence is culturally progressive and a politically generous counter to our ‘Little British’ mindset the post Brexit result delivered.

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