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Awards should be about excellence, not messages

Paul Finch

Giving prizes to social housing in Norwich at the expense of Grimshaw’s London Bridge triumph shows how the architectural world has become infected by the message bug, writes Paul Finch 

The furore over gender and ethnic representation within the BAFTA programme is understandable but is far from being a simple matter. That is because there are many people who do not believe that awards should be made on merit, but because they send the right ‘message’ – that message being what the message-proponents say it should be.

Alfred Hitchcock, on being asked about the message one of his films was sending, responded that there was none at all – and that messages were best left to Western Union. Abandon that and you run into trouble on awards. It results in travesties such as ET (best children’s film of all time) missing out on the Oscar in favour of Gandhi (equals peace and love, sort of), including Ben Kingsley’s ‘blackface’ performance as the Indian leader.

Unfortunately, the world of architecture has become infected by the message bug. Look at the wailing and gnashing of teeth when the Bloomberg headquarters won the Stirling Prize. Why? Because people who believe in messages rather than design immediately claimed that the RIBA must be supporting international capitalism, unbridled resource use which could not possibly represent sustainability, and big international practices rather than small boutique ones (generally incapable of undertaking large sophisticated challenges).

Plenty of architects have told me they did not think Goldsmith Street should have won the Stirling, but would never dare say so in public 

By contrast, happiness all round when the minimalist Hastings Pier intervention won the big prize: you could see all those small practices thinking (mostly mistakenly) that they could have done something like that. Ditto the Norwich Goldsmith Street council-housing scheme that won the Stirling in 2019. Plenty of architects have told me they did not think this scheme should have won the prize, but would never dare say so in public for fear of being branded as enemies of social housing.

Here is a question: if the Norwich project had been designed for a volume house-builder for private sale, would it have won the Stirling? The answer has to be no, suggesting that what is supposed to be the prize for the most significant work of architecture that year has been distorted to suit the people who like messages. Presumably, the Neave Brown Prize is supposed to cover this, but the message brigade can’t leave it alone. So Grimshaw’s London Bridge Station triumph was last year’s ET, as it were.

My biggest regret as a member of the RIBA Awards Group (for 10 years) was not making more fuss about better architecture that failed to make the Stirling shortlist in favour of lower-quality but ‘worthier’ projects. The failure to nominate Terminal 5 at Heathrow, and the Birmingham Selfridges department store, still rankle. However, they lost out to projects regarded as more appropriate, not individuals. The moment you start arguing that a project should be premiated because it is by a small practice/woman/BAME/LBGTQ+ architect is simultaneously insulting to the ‘minority’ and destructive of the whole idea of architectural excellence, a discipline that can be discussed and assessed in its own terms.

This is not to say that there should not be awards for those minority groups – for example, the awards for women architects supported by the AJ and Architectural Review, but they are parallel awards to the mainstream, not rivals.

On size of project, by the way, it is not true that a small project cannot beat a bigger one (with budgets to match). However, the moment you abandon judgement of architectural brilliance, delivered in response to a challenging brief, you are on thin ice. The only message any Stirling jury needs to send is: ‘We believe this was the finest piece of architecture we were privileged to see from the strongest possible shortlist of first-class buildings.’

Architects are good at judging design quality but can be all over the place when it comes to politics and communication, as some of the hyperbole surrounding Brexit and the last election have made all too clear.


Readers' comments (14)

  • John Kellett

    Spot on. BUT, this time Goldsmith Street was actually the right winner. It is not always the case, as other years have shown.

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  • The message brigade? Very poor level of thinking (on so many levels) in this reactionary opinion piece. Goldmsith Street is a fantastic winner.

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  • P Taylor

    Oh Paul. Bless.

    Brexit first, then.

    Why do we care so much, and is it hyperbole? As Chris Grey has pointed out, never before has a modern democratic country deliberately embarked on such a major change of direction whilst so internally divided about its wisdom.

    Despite you Brexiters telling us that Brexit is the ‘will of the people’, there’s never been a majority for any defined form of Brexit.

    Chris Grey has summarised most recently the main issues with Brexit and it is worth repeating them here. Grey writes that almost everything you Brexiters have said about international trade, or law, or customs procedures, or business operations, is either based on half-truths or is just wrong. It’s not just a matter of not knowing technical detail but basic facts about what Brexit involves. That incompetence is an affront not so much to those who voted to remain, but to those millions who voted to leave and might have had a reasonable expectation that the campaign leaders knew what they were doing. In reality, campaigning and protesting were all you knew how to do. Practical realities eluded you, not least because such realities contradicted the lies that you campaigned for and protested against.

    More than anything else, and unlike any other political event in Britain, Brexit is an expression of contempt and even hatred directed at about half of the population. You Brexiters, have unleashed a culture war against those they had defeated.

    Everywhere you have talked about Brexit, Paul, there seems to be more gloating about remainers’ distress than pleasure in leaving the EU.

    The constant, sneering, references to remainers (and the vast majority of architects who voted to remain) is typical of this. Politicians, businesspeople, judges, lawyers, civil servants, academics – not to mention EU nationals, who did not even have the right to vote in the Referendum - have all been endlessly attacked, mocked and, at the wilder extremes, subjected to accusations of treachery and to death and rape threats. It’s undoubtedly the case that this climate intimidated some MPs into supporting things, especially the triggering of Article 50, which they knew were wrong.

    As Grey also says, unlike you Brexiters, leading figures on the remain side have never sought to stigmatise leave voters but, rather, to try to understand their concerns. Whereas leading figures on the leave side have joined in, or at least not discouraged, the vitriol against remainers and never tried to understand their concerns.

    In the aftermath of a close vote, a divisive campaign and with a colossal national task to undertake a big, inclusive, consensus-building approach to Brexit was so obviously needed. It would have been enormously difficult but neither May nor Johnson even tried. Any competent political leader would have seen the vital need to bridge the huge divides Brexit has created or revealed. Yet even at this late stage, with Brexit assured and a large parliamentary majority, Johnson refuses to make even the tiniest gesture of conciliation.

    Brexiters have refused to seek consensus. Far from any attempt being made to find a consensual solution, as the years have gone by Brexit has been defined in harder and harder ways. The soft Brexit of single market membership, which many Brexiters had said was what Brexit meant prior to the referendum, and which could have formed the basis of a national consensus, was discounted as not being real Brexit. The hard Brexit of a trade agreement quickly gave way to claims that only ‘no deal’ or ‘clean’ Brexit would do.

    As we leave the EU there is still no clarity on whether any deal on future terms will be done, or what it will look like, but the direction of travel could well be a complete de-alignment with the EU. Undoubtedly some of the Ultras will push hard for that. However it turns out, it will be very different to what the Leave campaign promised. Always the agenda has been driven by the most fanatical and extreme anti-EU ideologues and their wholly dishonest claim to represent the will of an undivided ‘people’.

    Even that might have had a scintilla of legitimacy if a confirmatory referendum had been held. Far from being an outrageous attempt to subvert democracy it would have been a perfectly logical, and entirely democratic, exercise. It would simply have asked voters who had given, as it were, planning permission for Brexit to have the final say on whether, on the basis of what had thus far been agreed, they wanted to proceed beyond today’s point of no return. If they did, the answer would have been yes. If Brexiters truly believed it to be the will of the people they would have been happy to ask, but they knew it was not so.

    So remainers – and, for that matter, ‘soft’ leavers – have for more than three years had their faces ground into the dirt, being told to ‘suck it up’ even as Brexiters argue about what ‘it’ actually is. It is as if, had remain won, leavers had been told that the vote was a blank cheque to join the Euro, Schengen, and create an EU army. Or as if, rather than a 52-48 remain victory being, as Nigel Farage put it before the result, ‘unfinished business’, it had been treated as a licence to demand of leavers that they publicly recant their former beliefs and swear fealty to the remain cause.

    Having used your victory in this divisive and derogatory way, the Brexiters’ demand now is that remainers ‘get behind Brexit’ or, at least, accept that since it is unavoidable they should do their best to ‘make it work’. But that is impossible, even if there was any clarity as to what it meant and even if Brexiters had shown any whiff of humility. It is like asking someone to ‘get behind’ a self-harming relative because they are determined to hurt themselves. It can’t be done.

    This leaves remainers with few options. Those in the easiest position are those who were only ever marginally interested, and only marginally pro-remain. That’s probably quite a big group and it shouldn’t be forgotten because, just as many leave voters were not rabid Brexiters, so many remain voters were far from being ‘remainiacs’. In time, for them as perhaps for others, ‘remainer’ will simply cease to be an identity.

    Others – and I sense this amongst some friends – are simply withdrawing from political engagement, to concentrate on personal or perhaps local issues, and in some cases leaving the country. Some others feel vengeful, and anticipate the coming damage to the jobs and communities that most heavily voted leave with something like pleasure.

    Others will follow the course outlined by Steve Bullock, fighting to keep alive in Britain the liberal values of the EU in the face not just of Brexit but of what its architects will now try to do. That may have some unpredictable effects on British politics, according to Stephen Bush. Still others will regroup around a campaign to re-join the EU although, realistically, this makes most sense for younger people since even on Ian Dunt’s reckoning it is a decade away, and most people think that’s optimistic.

    That's Grey's summary of why we care so much.

    Next, my words on why Goldsmith's Street was the right winner, written for something else, but they'll serve here.

    Most people inside and outside the United Kingdom will know that it’s a pretty rubbish place to live at the moment. The country is in turmoil, and completely divided. The difference between income and housing costs is the greatest it has ever been, and housing design quality and provision are in crisis. The gap between average income and average house prices has changed between 1985 and 2015 from twice an average salary to up to six times average income. In London, the median house price is now up to 12 times the median London salary. With this, the quality of private rented accommodation is extremely low and the cost extremely high, and the provision of social housing – until very recently – at an all time low. Any notion in the UK of a benign welfare state has disappeared completely, and the government house building programmes almost non-existent.

    Amazingly, it wasn’t always thus. After the Second World War until the end of the 1970s we had an enormous state funded housing programme that ceased almost overnight when Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979. Up until that point, nearly 50% of the country lived in council housing. Now, it is approximately 8%. Much of that council housing was built to extremely high space standards and offered a vision of a better future for many.

    From 1979, there was very little government funded council housing built. In its place, private housebuilders began swamping the country with low density, badly built, and poorly located ‘executive’ rabbit hutches. The housebuilders had two aims: build them cheaply, and maximize profit. One developer told me recently: ‘Our only responsibility is to our shareholders. Why would we invest anything in design when – due to the housing shortage – any old crap sells’.

    Given that housebuilders have ruined much of the UK, it is easy to forget that housing is not only potentially an enormous force for good but has historically provided in Britain some of the best urban infrastructure in the world; its 18 th and 19 th century terraces, streets and squares still form the backbone to much of our cities, towns and villages. Good housing isn’t really about architecture in the way that many use the term to describe individual buildings: the infrastructure that works in the UK is a model of simple, robust and versatile urbanism which can be adapted and changed over time – unlike almost all housing built in the last 40 years. Recently, however, things have begun to change. Local authorities have started to build again, and we have once more seen excellent examples of social housing in the UK with the work of Peter Barber and others.

    Which brings us, naturally, to this year’s RIBA Stirling Prize that you dried, Paul

    . For some time, the Stirling Prize, with the exception of DRMM’s Hastings Pier, has been business as usual - as indeed was last year’s winner with establishment figures Norman Foster and Michael Bloomberg proving that money buys… quite a lot. Absurdly promoted by Foster as the ‘world’s most sustainable office building’ the Bloomberg HQ involved a staggeringly large amount of resources shipped from around the world to build it. If ever it felt like the Stirling had finally become meaningless, it was last year. It was a two-fingered salute to a country in crisis, saying that only London counted, only old white guys like you Paul mattered, and big bucks rule the world.

    And so, what a relief that this year’s Stirling Prize was awarded to the 100-house Goldsmith Street development in Norwich by Mikhail Riches with Cathy Hawley. Rather than merely virtue signalling, you and your bully-boy ilk repeatedly claim claim,, Goldsmith Street won because it was the best scheme, and, in opposition to Foster’s Bloomberg, one where the architects had extracted the most with the least.

    The whole country (except for you and a few like you) breathed a sigh of relief that the prize didn’t go to an ‘iconic’ piece of architecture in a time where more than anything we don’t need more iconic buildings. It went instead to a clever, yet ordinary council housing scheme in the provinces, built for a modest budget that was a fraction of the cost of last year’s winner. Not only is the scheme a delight by anyone’s standards, it also offers a road map for precisely the type of housing the UK needs huge amounts of.

    Goldsmith Street doesn’t, thankfully, reinvent the housing wheel, and it doesn’t need to. The last thing housing needs is novelty. It simply continues in the tradition of terrace housing as building blocks of communities. Yet, Goldsmith Street’s relative straightforwardness belies how clever the architects have been to get so much to work so well. Beautifully resilient, one can imagine it being there for hundreds of years getting better and better over time, as it is lived in by generations of ordinary people, and changed, adapted and updated as necessarily. In a culture where most private housebuilders cynically build the worst dross imaginable and consider Building Regulations Stalinesque constraints on their free-market profiteering, that Goldsmith Street is also super low energy and conforms to Passivhaus standards is nothing short of remarkable.

    As the United Kingdom tears itself apart politically and socially (and you are a part of this division, Paul) and in a climate when it is hard to believe in any kind of positive future for the country, most architecture seems pretty much irrelevant. However, Goldsmith Street offers an incredible and uplifting vision for how things could be in the future in the UK if there was the political will. Just for a minute, Goldsmith Street winning the Stirling Prize allows us to hope that this might precipitate change, and things might just get better.

    Wrong winner? I don't think so, Paul.

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  • Concision is all.

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  • P Taylor

    Gotta love your blanket, categorical, macho absolutes, Paul. Really, some times it isn’t all.

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  • That's more like it.

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  • A cynical and depressingly regressive article, followed by the refreshing opposite of reality and possibility (thanks Piers). It's absolutely true that the last thing we need is to focus on more 'iconic' buildings - in a city where a glut of money has bought the architectural equivalent of the mid-life crisis red convertible. Those huge schemes could be justifiable winners based on architectural technical design (arguably not so difficult with open coffers), as the smaller schemes equally can, but these have the added value that they have utilised design and critical thinking to address the reality we currently live in, as opposed to regressing our society with schemes such as T5. Since when did architecture become unrelated to people, society and life?

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  • I honestly can’t see the point in articles such as this. Yes, we may question that Oscar attendees have to embroider the names of female directors on their dresses, or reflect that celebrities making political points in speeches actually have the opposite effect. We can have valid concerns about quotas or merit but ultimately do need to weigh it up before coming out with our opinion.

    Surely, the bigger issue (and what we should be getting upset about) is the massive inequality in gender, class and colour. I’m all for slow progress, but it feels we are heading in the opposite direction. Becoming less fair.

    As for the winner not being worthy - maybe the subtleties are lost on those PF has spoken to? Architecture doesn’t exist in a vacuum and surely good architecture is about leveraging our skills? If it was only about design then ask yourself, would you give the Stirling Prize to a fabulously designed torture chamber? Of course not.

    Ultimately, it’s just an award. Outside of our bubble nobody really gives a shit. This year’s winner has got people on the outside taking notice. It’s a shame you can’t celebrate this.

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  • Big project wins one year - cue outrage on behalf of the unsung, ‘worthier’ projects.

    More down to earth project, innovative in its process and doing a lot with a little, wins the next year - cue the outrage at lack of bling/complexity etc

    Blah blah. We all know that the world needs balance. We need the soaring architectural ambition, complex feats of structural wizardry and awe inspiring beauty as much as we need transformative and uplifting approaches to the stuff of our daily lives - housing. The most important thing is to make sure we keep that balance. In that spirit it seems pretty appropriate that this year the pendulum has swung to a project like Goldsmith St.

    The positivity of awards is just the feed of critics...

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  • It’s possible to think that Goldsmith Street is an excellent piece of architecture AND an important building in social terms. Recognising both might be an important function of architectural criticism. Assumed neutrality (I judge buildings on their merits, free of ideological bias) usually has something to hide.

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