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An enjoyable Stirling Prize and a very deserving winner

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Paul Finch’s Letter from London: Cambridge’s requirements for college buildings to last 500 years were far from stupid, writes Paul Finch

The downside of not having a proper television programme about the Stirling Prize contenders is the missed opportunity to inform a decent sized audience about what architects really do.

The Culture Show feature last week was as much a sideswipe at architects as anything else, with footage of Prince Charles’ 1984 speech (yawn), and too much attention to the smelly so-called Carbuncle Cup, presumably to cast doubt on the credibility of the Stirling Prize judging chair. (If the Grimshaw Cutty Sark was the worst piece of UK architecture finished in the last 12 months, I am Aldo van Eyck.)

In the event, it didn’t matter because of the obvious efforts the judges had taken in arriving at a decision that seemed to please the vast majority of the Stirling Prize audience in Manchester (good hosts, as ever). Moreover, the absence of television at the event made it a more relaxed occasion, and allowed us to learn, for once, why the jury had picked the winner it decided on earlier that day. Jo van Heyningen gave a nice account of the deliberations, focusing quite rightly on the winner.

We should acknowledge David Chipperfield’s contribution to improving two aspects of the Stirling process: first, that the jury has some input into the final shortlist, and second, that there is a citation so we know what the jury thought. In the past, juries always gave reasons and were often filmed by the television production company, but their comments (as I know from personal experience) never appeared on the broadcast programme. Let’s hope that next year we can at least get a proper preview of the contenders on one television channel or another - it is, after all, a visual medium. I must say, I miss Kevin McCloud.

Anyway, huge congratulations to Stanton Williams, a consistent producer of fine buildings for many years. Last year, the Cambridge laboratory came close to winning the world building of the year award at the World Architecture Festival; this year the firm’s Central Saint Martin’s complex at King’s Cross was a category winner - the first time a UK practice has made the final shortlist two years in a row.

It was a pity that Susie and David Sainsbury’s Gatsby Foundation did not receive a client of the year award. There is a reluctance to make more than one award (for reasons that escape me), and one can entirely understand the wish to acknowledge the huge contribution of the Olympic Delivery Authority and LOCOG in delivering the Olympic Stadium, of course with Populous and Buro Happold.

In both the stadium and laboratory projects, the question of cost versus value loomed large, as did the idea of longevity and change. In the case of the Stadium, as we are now discovering, the relatively high cost is paying off because of the possibility of adapting the design for new purposes, the basis of the radical rethink of the Olympic Stadium as building type.

In the case of the laboratory, the high initial cost, far from being evidence of unnecessary extravagance, is in fact the consequence of a desire for the long-term flexibility and adaptability that has been designed into the building. The longer the building lasts, the more one understands the distinction between cost and investment.

Those old Cambridge requirements for college buildings to last 500 years were far from stupid. Compare that with the much trumpeted efficiency of so many office buildings that end up being demolished after 25 years. They represent the triumph of a project management ideology that cannot see further than the end of its ISO-conforming nose.

Thank God for clients like Susie and David Sainsbury.

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