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Institutions are only as good as the individuals in them

Paul Finch
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If you honour someone by naming a prize or award after them, what does it say if you suddenly drop them? asks Paul Finch

A memorable day at the Architectural Association last week celebrated the life and work of Cedric Price, culminating in a two-volume book launch – not just the complete works, but the complete writings and talks as well, assembled by the indefatigable Samantha Hardingham. Weighing in at about 5 kilos, this will certainly be the heaviest work about the great man, even if not the last.

Needless to say anecdotes from former office staff and collaborators flowed thick and fast, my favourite being the occasion when the theatre director Joan Littlewood arrived at the Price office with a slightly reluctant nun in tow. Cedric came down the stairs as there seemed to be something of a commotion, at which point Littlewood pointed at him and declared to the nun: ‘This is the man who is going to give you lots of money!’

Littlewood declared to the nun: ‘This is the man who is going to give you lots of money!’

There wasn’t enough time to go into many other aspects of CP’s kaleidoscopic world of interests and connections, but I couldn’t help recalling his curious relationship with Richard Seifert and the RIBA. The Colonel, as Seifert was accurately described (though he didn’t use the nomenclature himself), was the leading commercial architect of his generation. Cedric wasn’t at all interested in spec office buildings, but had a certain regard for their author. There was a mutual respect at work, and the pair joined forces to monitor what the institute was up to from time to time, seeking and being granted an audience with the person then known as the Secretary.

The interest, at least on the Colonel’s part, stemmed from his discovery that £50,000 he thought he had donated to the RIBA Library had in fact been used to repair the lifts. Cedric was suspicious about organisations in general and the RIBA in particular, because it represented the profession of which was a member, albeit one highly sceptical about its modes of operation.

Cedric price riba collections

Cedric price riba collections

Source: RIBA Collections

Cedric Price

What might the pair have made of the odd history of the Manser Medal? This was formerly the name given to the best house submitted for an RIBA Award, and was the creation partly of former president Michael Manser, who made a significant contribution to the history of post-war house architecture, and who promoted the quality of such work by younger architects. But it wouldn’t have happened without the drive and commitment of Michael Gazzard, who launched the award with help from the RIBA, especially Tony Chapman, its former head of awards.

Last year the institute dropped the Manser Medal title in favour of a super-dull new name: the RIBA House of the Year. This was part of a branding exercise which also saw the Lubetkin Prize renamed. Fair enough, you might think – except that Portland Place didn’t bother to tell Michael (or the Lubetkin family) about its decision.

This rudeness was commented on by Michael Hopkins, when he spoke to a packed house at a memorial event for Michael Manser at the Royal Academy recently. The medal should be revived, he thought. As it happens, the revival was already under way, under the auspices of Gazzard and The Sunday Times. As reported, Loyn & Co’s excellent Gloucestershire house is the first winner of the revived medal, and the practice has received a prize of £5,000, which Jonathan Manser has pledged will become annual.

The point of the story is not that the RIBA behaved badly, though it did. The point is that people matter, memory matters, and institutions are only as good as the individuals they comprise, both past and present. If you honour someone by naming a prize or award after them, what does it say if you suddenly drop them? That they should not have been honoured in the first place? That the people who took the decision were incompetent?

So now we have two prizes for exemplary house architecture. Perhaps this is an example of what Cedric Price called ‘necessary repetition for the wilfully inattentive’.

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