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The Stephen Lawrence Prize fosters opportunity

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Stephen Lawrence Prize essay by Maria Smith

The Stephen Lawrence Prize is by no means a runner-up award. Give any architect £100 million and a sympathetic client and they’d secretly be planning their ceremony outfit; but to create world class architecture with just £1 million takes exactly the kind of honourable innovation that architects respect.

Why are small projects so revered? Is it because the constraints they present demand greater creativity? Is it that their lower budgets pose lower risks and therefore allow more experimentation? Is there a sense of a deeper relationship between the architect and client, perhaps, as small projects are less likely to be for commercial clients?

Or is it the relation between small projects and small practices? Our risk-averse climate favours big practices. But ask almost any architecture graduate what they want to do and they’ll give you one of two answers: they want to join a small, interesting, design-led practice; or they want to set up a small, interesting, design-led practice. Clients may favour big practices, but architects prefer small.

On top of the small projects/small practice link is the small projects/young practice relationship. While the Stephen Lawrence Prize is intended ‘to encourage fresh talent working with smaller budgets’; past winners have included Ian Ritchie, John Pawson and Simon Conder (twice). The average age of the prize’s recipients is 45.

It’s often difficult to understand the criteria by which architecture prizes are awarded. This is especially so when the prizes are called things like ‘Gold Medal’; and arguably slightly less so when they’re called things like ‘Daylight and Building Component Award’. But what about when they’re named for a person?

The Pritzker Prize, Aga Kahn Award, and Driehaus Prize are named for their founders and funders. The Manser Medal is named to honour the achievements of the living architect Michael Manser. The Alvar Aalto Medal, Mies van der Rohe Award, Jane Drew Prize and Michael Middleton and Selwyn Goldsmith awards all honour the achievements of figures who have passed away. The Stirling Prize, too, is named in honour of the deceased James Stirling’s achievements but here, as with the Stephen Lawrence Prize, there is also an element of unreached potential.

Named for the teenage victim of a racially motivated attack, what should the Stephen Lawrence Prize reward? Stephen would have been 40 this year and we are currently at a stage where the prize-winners are architects who would have been his contemporaries.

This feels like a fitting time to ensure that the agenda of the prize is what it should be. Is this a prize that rewards the architects of small projects, regardless of their age? Is it a prize that rewards young architects delivering small projects? Could it even be a prize that rewards young architects delivering large projects? Whatever the criteria, it should be a prize that promotes opportunity: opportunity for everyone to realise his or her potential.

Maria Smith, founder, Studio Weave

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