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Martyn Evans: 'FAT's House for Essex should be celebrated at the highest level'

Martyn Evans
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Property developer Martyn Evans explains why the RIBA needs an ‘override’ system to stop projects overlooked for RIBA regional awards from missing out on architecture’s top prizes

There was a collective gasp on social media at the end of last week as the RIBA East Awards list for 2016 was announced. There was one assumed shoo-in missing - FAT and Grayson Perry’s A House for Essex.

Of course there will always be disappointment, debate and despondent architects when any awards list is announced. We have to allow a jury, selected for its expertise, the right to choose for itself which schemes it honours in its region.

But in the current RIBA Awards system, there is no room for a building that misses out on a regional award to be given national recognition - or indeed make the Stirling Prize shortlist - simply because it is just too important to miss out.

A House For Essex jack hobhouse 1

A House For Essex jack hobhouse 1

A House for Essex is one such building. I must declare an interest in the awards process. I sat on the London South regional jury this year and I know the care with which we debated each and every building on our shortlist, and how much we agonised about the buildings we decided, in the end, not to honour.

The list of criteria for the awards is too long to list here, but it is littered with phrases like ‘stimulate, engage and delight its occupants, visitors and passers-by’, ‘design vision’, ‘innovation, invention and originality’ and ‘selection of materials and their detailing’.

Just to look at it is to feel overjoyed by its very existence

If there is one building that exemplifies all these criteria, it is A House for Essex. I have had the pleasure of visiting it twice. Both times I met many people who stopped by on the public footpath that runs along its boundary, all of whom were transfixed and elated to see it. Even if you worry about it being an expensively built, private house for privileged visitors (‘value for money’ being another criterion), just to look at it from the path is to feel overjoyed by its very existence.

That it won its planning consent over considerable initial community objections and made the burly site foreman cry as the statue of Julie was finally winched into place atop its beautiful roof only adds to the sheer joy, for me, that this wonderful building exists in our country’s modern architectural cannon. Given that much of the stock being built in our country right now is pretty woeful, the fact that an inspired architecture practice, brave planners and one of our most celebrated contemporary artists  - elected an honorary RIBA Fellow in 2016, incidentally - can come together to make something so beautiful and exciting fills me with hope that we can do it when we try. For this reason alone, this building ought to be celebrated at the highest level.

FAT and Grayson Perry's House for Essex

FAT and Grayson Perry’s House for Essex

Source: Katie Hyam

It’s a big shame that RIBA East decided not to hand the house an award. But my opinion in that regard is irrelevant – I wasn’t on the jury. I do believe, however, that the RIBA ought to retain the right to lift schemes up from regional shortlisting to a national shortlist. The central awards group used to be able to do this when they felt that the regional lists needed calibrating, or there had been a miscarriage of justice.

Of course A House for Essex can be resubmitted next year, but I worry that it might simply be too notorious to succeed. RIBA should reinstate the old system and allow the Awards Group to honour a building that screams for recognition because of its sheer beauty, innovation and uplifting optimism.

Martyn Evans is a property developer, board director of the London Festival of Architecture, RIBA Awards judge and until recently creative director of U+I.
@uncommonmartyn

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