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Stirling criticism undermines design talent that we should be celebrating

Paul Finch

The cliché about architects being a bunch of squabbling egos starts to ring true when people who should know better rush to judgment about others’ work, writes Paul Finch

Stirling win andrewhendry

Stirling win andrewhendry

I can’t help noticing that the spirit of generosity with which great designs and designers should be treated seems to be in short supply at the moment. The cliché about architects being a bunch of squabbling egos starts to ring true when people who should know better rush to judgment about other architects’ work and resort to anti-social media to air their grievances.

The suggestion that it was ‘disastrous’ to award the Stirling Prize to Foster + Partners’ Bloomberg headquarters only goes to show how abuse of language is not confined to the world of politics. ‘Disastrous’ is not a synonym for ‘I don’t agree with a decision made by jurors who have actually seen the relevant buildings’.

A magnificent landmark for an extraordinarily driven client, this project is jaw-dropping in its ambition and achievement – by no means guaranteed simply because of the size of the budget. It would be worth an award simply as a piece of urbanism, but it is much more than that: it is a complete work of architecture in every sense and thoroughly deserving of a prize that has in the past been awarded to far less serious work.

The real problem about CO2 emissions lies in the worst energy-performing buildings, not exemplary offices likely to be with us for a century

Even Simon Sturgis, an architect and energy expert hugely to be admired, seems to have tripped up in his criticisms of the Bloomberg building complex, which has the highest-ever BREEAM office rating. Nobody is saying that it can be the model for all future workplace buildings, but it can certainly point to some directions they might head in. The real problem about carbon dioxide emissions lies in the (let’s say) 20 per cent of our worst energy-performing housing and other building stock, not exemplary new offices likely to be with us for a century, unlike the commercial clunker it has replaced.

Nor do I like the attacks on De Matos Ryan for its V&A extension designs. They are talented designers who deserve, like their client, some respect. Can we avoid turning the mother of the arts into a catalyst for slanging matches?

• • •

Richard horden web

Richard horden web

Richard Horden’s untimely passing brought to mind one of his career highlights: winning the 1992 Glasgow Tower competition for a site in St Enoch Square. The intention was that it should become a millennium marker for the city, which it eventually did, albeit in an altered form and on a different site.

I worked on the commemorative publication that marked the competition. The jury included Norman Foster (for whom Richard had worked on the Sainsbury Centre) and Anthony Hunt (its engineer). The competition was funded by the Glasgow Development Agency and a publicly minded developer, The Burrell Company.

It attracted hundreds of entries and produced a strong shortlist and an exceptional winner. I got to know Richard, having met him at the post-announcement lunch in Rogano’s, the city’s then restaurant of choice. We met on and off for years, most recently in autumn last year, when he showed us round the brilliant house in Poole, designed for his parents, which was his thesis project at the AA. His anecdote about the design concerned Foster, who had been an AA external examiner and was apparently quite searching in his questions about the design. Having later seen the building in the flesh, he offered Richard a job …

Richard was one of those architects who could work at very different scales to equally good effect. A big commercial building might be followed by a micro-flat or mountain-rescue cabin, or canvas lifeguard shelter. His uncompromising rigour did not always work to his advantage in respect of client relations, and it is a matter of regret that, for understandable reasons, he fell out with the client over the Glasgow Tower project and severed all ties with it.

Another hiccup occurred in his relationship with Land Securities, at the time the UK’s largest developer. Richard made the preliminary shortlist in its 1984 Grand Buildings competition, with a brilliant twin-building proposition unlike any other entry. He didn’t make the final three because he didn’t fully comply with some not very relevant entry requirements, but the client knew that he had produced something special. The next competition it ran was for an office building in Victoria, Eland House. Richard was invited to take part and won. Later, for various reasons, the parties fell out. A pity.

There were plenty of successes, however, via his practice Horden Cherry Lee and in respect of his teaching in Europe. He will be much missed.


Readers' comments (8)

  • One of the positive things about the Stirling Prize is that it can stimulate debate about architecture in a public context. We can restrict that debate to the usual banalities about "world class" design, or we can look at architecture in the context of wider societal issues and ask how and in what way it relates to them.

    No one is saying Bloomberg is a rubbish building, but the criticism that it should not have won the prize is entirely admissible. In a time of austerity, environmental crisis and political upheaval, the message the Stirling Prize (and by extension, the profession) is sending is that good architecture is the preserve of billionaires, is a celebration of corporate values, and is a way of disguising the impact of those values on the planet by the invention of lots of expensive tekkie greenwashing.

    These issues are serious and important issues which are legitimate and indeed, essential subjects of architectural debate. To suggest the discussion is nothing more than a battle of egos trivialises them. I think most architects would agree, that the jury got it wrong and that any of other other candidates would have been a more deserving winner.

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  • The logic of this is that the Bloomberg building shouldn't have been shortlisted. But what about other buildings on the list that were expensive? Should they be excluded because of austerity (a phoney phrase to anyone who experienced the real thing in the 1930s), or political upheaval (always with us), or environmental crisis (which prompted a specific design response from the winner)? All these factors existed when a Maggie's Centre won. Was it relevant to them? Was the profession sending a message? No, except in the minds of those who really want there to be one, provided it is one they like. As Alfred Hitchcock used to say, 'Leave messages to Western Union'.

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  • Industry Professional

    A true measure of design talent would be designing an office building in central London for £1500/m2, not £15,000/m2.

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  • For 'Industry Professional': it would surely wind up being a great deal taller, so do you really think that a true measure of design talent would be the degree to which a site could be over-stuffed?
    This could explain a lot.

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  • Phil Parker

    Sean Griffiths can choose to take the debate to wherever he likes, ‘societal’ or whatever but it has absolutely nothing to do with the Stirling Prize.

    The Stirling Prize is about great architecture.

    The Sitirling prize does not reward political or social responsiveness or being politically correct. These inform the context in which we make architecture but they are not the criteria with which we judge it.

    However, Griffiths’s point amplifies the current malaise and the lack of direction we give our young architects during the disconnected early phase of their architectural training.

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  • Industry Professional

    I find that it is ideal that a prize of this relevance stimulates debate in the profession and the wider society as well. Ideas such as “preserve of billionaires”, “celebration of corporate values” are worth being discussed by architects and importantly by students of architecture also.

    To think that the profession should not aspire to be an important critical agent of social change seems to me an outmoded and shortsighted approach that conceived “great architecture” only as a functional and aesthetic object designed for a patron by an "artist".

    If architects do not include themselves in the debates about where it is worth taking society they risk becoming even more irrelevant than they already are in the context of the big social challenges - such as housing (social or not), sustainability and health and safety to name a few - where less and less are they the ones saying the last word, if any word at all.

    Let us open the Western Union's messages then.

    A different “Industry Professional” though.

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  • Phil Parker

    “If architects do not include themselves in the debates about where it is worth taking society......”


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  • Industry Professional

    Rubbishing comments rather than discussing them with arguments certainly enriches this forum. Well done!

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