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Judging the Stirling Prize is like comparing chalk and cheese

Paul Finch

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. 


Readers' comments (3)

  • Having worked on the Distillery, I can safely say it is one of the most impressive buildings we have ever been part of , good luck to all involved in the Prize giving

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  • The diving analogy is very good. But I still think the station deserves the prize even though it must be the most complex challenging project with a client that is demanding and potentially difficult.

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  • Bring on the clowns, the circus is back in town...the fact that the Velodrome did not win is symptomatic of the vacuous nature of these 'Soap Opera' awards. To quote directly from 'Sustainable materials: with both eyes open' (2012) by Julian Allwood and Jonathan Cullen':

    "London 2012 Olympic Park:
    As CO2 emissions related to the use of buildings are reduced through energy efficiency measures, more attention is focused on the embodied carbon emissions in construction. At the London 2012 Olympic Park more than 90% of embodied carbon is in just three construction materials: concrete, reinforcing steel and structural steel. Each material accounts for approximately 30% of the total. An effective means to reduce embodied carbon in construction projects is to set targets early in the design, preferably in the brief. We found two different stories at the Olympic park.

    The architects for the Velodrome had a vision to build a minimum structure building ‘shrink- wrapped’ around the sport and spectators. As a result the geometry was governed by the track layout and required sightlines; this ‘saddle’ shape allowed use of a lightweight cable-net roof system where the steel is used in tension to span 130 metres between supports. Despite initial concerns about costs and risks, the contractor could save money and time by using this system and the client approved. The cable-net roof saved 27 % of the steel that would have been required in an alternative steel arch option. An advanced dynamic analysis of the seating structure showed that combining the roof, stand and façade support systems, gave performance within accepted limits despite being lighter than code recommendations.

    The contract for design the Aquatics Centre was awarded to a signature architect asked to design an iconic building for the London 2012 Games. The roof is a key element—‘an undulating roof sweeps up from the ground as a wave’. The shape of the roof could be supported only by a conventional truss system. This was optimised during design but is still over five times as heavy as the roof of the Velodrome’s, which has a similar span and area.

    The story of these two stadia at the London Olympics demonstrates that specifying lightweight design early in a contract allows significant material savings: finding a favourable form at the start yields greater savings than highly refining a heavier option later on."

    Now that the RIBA has declared a climate change emergency, I assume that the most sustainable, or at least the building with the least environment impact per cubic metre, will win the Stirling Prize? As the Velodrome should have...we need action and not more hollow words.

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