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Acknowledge excellence earlier in an architect’s career

Paul Finch
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The RIBA Gold Medal sets the bar so high that an alternative awards mechanism is required, says Paul Finch 

It was good to see Caruso St John winning the Stirling Prize last week; the practice was obviously a considerable talent when it came a close second years ago with its Walsall Gallery, the equivalent of a great first album. Since then it has been ploughing what has sometimes been a lonely furrow, in the process learning how to achieve the apparently effortless by dint of design investigation and construction experience. 

Níall McLaughlin has recently raised the issue of how we might reward or acknowledge UK architectural excellence when the bar is so high in respect of the Gold Medal; he might have added that, to an extent, awards like the Stirling Prize not only have a high bar, but to an extent depend on when your building was finished, and who the jury is. To be shortlisted is achievement enough, but there is no cigar. 

As previously discussed in this column, the RIBA fellowship system does not recognise the best design architects, and therefore there is no effective way of acknowledging major talents except by a Gold Medal. A glance at a list of first-class UK architects would include all those who have been made Royal Academicians – by an institution that has no difficulty recognising individual talent (for example Spencer de Grey, Ian Ritchie, and the late lamented Michael Manser and Richard MacCormac).

As things stand, the RIBA cannot acknowledge its own finest members

Then there are those who do not fit into any recognisable category, the obvious example being Cedric Price, celebrated at the Architectural Association this week with the publication of a complete-works tome assembled by Samantha Hardingham. The start of this week was marked by a St Paul’s Cathedral memorial service for Zaha Hadid, who won the Gold Medal just before her tragic early death; either of these great architects might have received some individual honour from the institute at an early stage in their careers, but nothing was or is available.

I would make the same argument in favour of recent British practices/individuals who have won the Stirling Prize, have been shortlisted on more than one occasion, or simply did great work before the prize was invented – for example the office of ABK. Partners from practices such as Caruso St John, Haworth Tompkins and AHMM should have had individual recognition earlier in their careers.

The reason I like the idea of fellowships being awarded to architects of obvious design distinction is that it avoids the business of inventing another class of medals, though perhaps this is inevitable if one wishes to reward design excellence rather than the merits of professionals who excel in non-design fields.

You can’t really have another metal medal, since the Bronze Silver and Gold represent a closed system. You could, however, imagine an honour with a title something like ‘RIBA Medallist’, an appropriate ceremony, and the celebration of a growing cadre of the best designers, some of whom might achieve Gold Medal status later in their career. For those honoured, this would be a significant professional moment, whatever might transpire subsequently.

As things stand, the RIBA cannot acknowledge its own finest members, leaving that to the RA (to a limited extent), or to the government through the honours system. Only one of three relatively recent architect RA presidents, all knighted, received the Gold Medal: Philip Dowson. Hugh Casson didn’t (though he did become a Companion of Honour); Nicholas Grimshaw is an obvious Gold Medal candidate.

My point is that there should be a mechanism for acknowledging design talent before individuals reach the greatest heights of the profession; the current system is simply too elitist. The American Institute of Architects does these things better, with proper rigour.

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