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RIBA winners still delight despite climate of austerity

Will Hurst
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This year’s winning schemes have overcome severe budgetary constraints through ingenuity and close co-operation with clients

This year’s RIBA National Awards have a feeling of economy and efficiency about them. It’s not that the award-winners are rough and ready – that would be to underplay their refinement – but the climate of austerity these buildings were born in is apparent in exposed concrete walls and stairs, modular components and visible services. In the industrial aesthetic of 2015, the office, the university, the school and the house and even the theatre have echoes of a previous era’s factories and foundries. Their architects are wringing every drop of firmness, commodity and delight out of ultra-tight budgets and prioritising flexibility to ensure these schemes are built to last. All in all, it’s a far cry from the ‘wow factor’ architecture promoted by John Prescott only a decade ago.

But if that sounds depressing, it shouldn’t. The cultural context may have changed and the money’s in short supply but architects are still using their ingenuity to create outstanding buildings. In particular, these award-winners have overcome the constraints of austerity by forming successful double acts with a vital partner and ally prepared to fight their corner – the client.

Architects are wringing every drop of firmness, commodity and delight out of ultra-tight budgets

To properly recognise the role of the architectural patron today, the AJ has this year commissioned essays from leading clients to introduce the nine building types represented in this year’s awards. The results underline just how important a close and trusting relationship between architect and client is in achieving quality.

Take Binith Cheeran, who commissioned John Pardey to design his house in Berkshire. As Cheeran says, he did not enjoy the ‘edge-of-your-seat drama’ involved in building his own property but retained immense faith in the architect-client relationship. ‘When your architect is prepared to revise an inconsequential cupboard drawing six times to get the details just right, your belief in the worthiness of the endeavour is replenished, and you have the will to push through,’ he says.

Similarly Burntwood School principal Helen Dorfman cites the ‘clear, shared vision’ she had with AHMM as the key to creating a new school building which would reference ‘Le Corbusier, Mies, Italian Renaissance buildings and the design ethos of the Bauhaus’, no less.

We have also examined the RIBA National Awards data over the past 10 years and in that time one client stands out. Despite its post-recession nightmare, Urban Splash has won almost twice as many awards as any other in that time period. And not a single one of these has been in the region which dominates RIBA National Awards: London.

Well done to them and to all the other clients who support great architecture.

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