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Is there an anti-Celtic bias within the Stirling Prize?

Cold fusion

Why has Scottish practice Reiach and Hall missed out on the RIBA’s top prize three years in a row? asks Alan Dunlop

Alan dunlop 2017

For the third year running, Reiach and Hall, now in conjunction with Michael Laird, were shortlisted but missed out on the big prize. A Scottish-based architect has yet to win the Stirling Prize and the only ‘Scottish’ building to have ever won is the Parliament designed by Spanish architect Enric Miralles. Another Celtic practice, O’Donnell + Tuomey, has also been shortlisted five times but not won. Can there be an anti-Celtic bias within the Stirling Prize?

If the Stirling Prize exists to recognise excellence in architecture and to reward the ‘UK’s best new building’ then the City of Glasgow College should have been this year’s winner. It was not. The only other contender of equal merit was the British Museum World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners. Both are great buildings and as Louis Kahn would say, each elicits a ‘spirit of creativity and ambition’ that defines great architecture. None of the other shortlisted projects has such quality.

I like Hastings Pier, but it is not great architecture

The Stirling is presented to ‘the architects of the building that has made the greatest contribution to the evolution of architecture in the past year’. At 60,000m², the City of Glasgow College is a project of complexity and of a scale not seen in the city since the reign of Queen Victoria. It is monumental and covers almost four city blocks. It brings together on to one campus, four disparate education institutions with over 8,000 students. It is a truly accomplished work of architecture that belies the challenges of its build.

I like Hastings Pier, but it is not great architecture. Not short of hyperbole though, the RIBA president and jury chair Ben Derbyshire, classes it as a ‘masterpiece of regeneration’ and cites the architect’s engagement with the local community and the ‘economic and social benefit the project had brought to the town’. Daisy Froud from the London School of Architecture also loved the toilets. It is a puzzle why it was shortlisted for the Stirling at all. Alex de Rijke of dRMM suggests in an interview with the AJ that ‘sometimes you don’t need a building’. Well, for a prize for the best new building in the UK, I think you do.

It seems to me that the Stirling Prize is progressively less and less about rewarding great buildings and more and more about keeping in step with professional and political interest ‘down south’. In 2008, Accordia won in the face of discussion for more and better-designed housing. In 2011, schools were the hot topic and Zaha Hadid’s Evelyn Grace Academy lifted the prize. Today, there is much anxiety and debate about the marginalisation of the architect, our role in society, and the utility of the profession. By awarding the Stirling Prize to Hastings Pier, the RIBA has missed another opportunity to focus on architectural challenge and excellence albeit in ‘the North’, while continuing to navel gaze, attempting to readjust and reposition the profession as hand-knitted facilitator and agent for community benefit.

All very worthy, but not architecture in its purest sense. Since its inception in 1996, only three non-London based practices have won the Stirling Prize. It is time the prize lifted its head; looked much more beyond London and the South, and sought to spread its bounty further afield.

Alan Dunlop is co-director of Alan Dunlop Architect, Aberfoyle, Stirling


Readers' comments (3)

  • I agree with Alan Dunlop ...........the pier is engineering and the architecture unexciting - a disappointing winner for the Stirling Prize. Jim Cuthbertson (retired RIBA FRIAS, MRIAI,)

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  • Very well put, I completely agree.

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  • Is there more to the 'drift' of the Stirling Prize than a concentration on what's happening down south?
    Is it worse than that - have we entered a period of febrile fascination in anything odd?
    Everything from Zaha Hadid's competition winning but structurally nonsensical Riverside Museum in Glasgow to a variety of 'shape-shifting' attention seeking lumps gracing the London skyline - and to Thomas Heatherwick's infantile violation of listed buildings at King's Cross to provide some light relief from the banal architecture of much of the surrounding development?

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