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.