How do you judge an amazing railway station or distillery against a house made of cork? asks Paul Finch
A cracking shortlist for the RIBA Stirling Prize is a reminder of the rude health of the profession – all the buildings produced by UK practices for sites in the UK. In the not-too-distant past the rules of engagement meant that non-UK practices could win for buildings outside the UK (I am not making this up). Anyway, let’s enjoy a celebration of local talent amid the gloom and doom surrounding Brexit outcomes.
For the judges, the range in both type and scale will present challenges that are both stimulating and difficult. Stimulating because the visits should be thoroughly engaging in their respective ways; challenging because the usual series of dilemmas will occur in thinking about an eventual winner.
The first of the dilemmas concerns the difference between big and small buildings. From observation, as a member of the RIBA Awards Group for a decade, there is a tendency to premiate the perfect, smaller project as against the seriously difficult big building.
You can, sort of, see why: the bigger the building – and usually the budget – the more there is to shoot at. Whereas the exquisite smaller project gets the oohs and aahs from design aficionados and become easier to agree on.
That is why the decision to award the prize last year to Foster’s Bloomberg headquarters was important: the jury had recognised the difficulties and aspirations, which were no less considerable because of the finance available.
Predictably, the anti-commerce brigade started taking pot-shots (as they have against Foster’s Tulip), but then the Stirling jury had visited everything before reaching a conclusion, unlike the critics.
Grimshaw’s Eden Project and Hopkins’ Velodrome should surely have won in their respective years
If achievement had been measured against degree of difficulty, then Grimshaw’s Eden Project and Hopkins’ Velodrome should surely have won in their respective years, but there is no point in second-guessing the jury.
Incidentally, the mindless criticism that the winners somehow ‘represent’ what the RIBA thinks about things completely misunderstands the process of the award judging. As such, the RIBA doesn’t think anything about individual buildings, other than the fact that they were good enough to win institute awards. After that, all bets are off.
Comparisons are inevitable
My advice over the years about judging the architectural equivalent of chalk and cheese is to think about buildings in the terms that inform diving competitions. That is to say, a perfect, but very simple, dive cannot beat a really good, more difficult type. The degree of difficulty should surely be taken into account in assessing these matters.
If that puts larger buildings in the driving seat for the Stirling Prize, it is certainly no guarantee of success, because the degree of difficulty may have proved too much of a challenge for the architectural team. What it does do, however, is provide a form of balance in a difficult process.
To take an obvious example: how do you judge an amazing railway station or distillery against a house made of cork? I look forward to the judges’ conclusions and observe that this shortlist comes from an incredibly strong 2019 RIBA Awards list – a credit to the profession.