Virtue-signalling and an apparent institutional bias against big commercial schemes distort the Stirling Prize roll of honour, says Paul Finch
‘The architects of the building that has made the greatest contribution to the evolution of architecture in the past year’ are supposed to win the Stirling Prize.
It is a big claim, especially since only buildings in the UK – designed by RIBA members – are eligible. Moreover, the awarding of the prize is often complicated by individuals on the Stirling jury (institute presidents included) who think they should be sending a ‘message’.
The result of this, reviewing winners and shortlisted buildings since the prize was launched in 1996, is an unbalanced pantheon. As has been noted before, winners frequently get the award for work that is certainly not their best, and there is an apparent institutional bias in favour of smaller public or quasi-public buildings. Big commercial buildings rarely get a look-in, and major public buildings often have difficult in making the shortlist, let alone winning the big one.
Predecessors to Stirling were the ‘RIBA Building of the Year Awards’, which ran from 1987 to 1995. They gave a clue to what was to come: not a single private commercial-use building won.
This year’s Stirling winner, the public housing scheme in Norwich by Mikhail Riches with Cathy Hawley, is part of the same pattern. The new president of the RIBA can now virtue signal about a building type which virtually none of his members actually live in, partly because of its environmental credentials. Can anyone name a public sector development from the past 30 years where architects have bought properties and inhabited them?
The only commercial building on this year’s shortlist, the Macallan Distillery and Visitor Centre, has exceptional sustainability features, but it would have been embarrassing to replicate the decision of the RIAS, which has just given the Rogers Stirk Harbour building its Doolan Prize, the Scottish equivalent of the Stirling but with prize money attached.
Macallan distillery and visitor centre by rogers stirk harbour and partners 2
The building with the biggest public use credentials was London Bridge Station by Grimshaw, but then it is a very large building so there is more for critics to shoot at. It must have been a close-run thing; wouldn’t it be fun if the judging were live-streamed so we could all hear the arguments? As it is, all we know is that the jury preferred the winner to the others, but we never hear why – the general situation in respect of architectural awards.
I have my own mental list of Stirling ‘winners’, rather like those people who rework the Gold Medal more to their liking; some are what won, others aren’t, as the following list shows:
1996 Stephen Hodder’s Centenary Building for the University of Salford was uncontested.
1997 Stirling Wilford’s Stuttgart music school should not have been entered for an award bearing the architect’s name, so my winner that year was Will Alsop for his ‘Big Blue’ regional headquarters building in Marseilles.
1998 Foster’s won with the Imperial War Museum at Duxford, but at the time the rules allowed entries from elsewhere in the EU – and the practice’s Commerzbank in Frankfurt was also shortlisted. This surely had more architectural influence – but on workplace design, thus beyond the pale.
1999 Future System’s brilliant Lord’s media centre was a worthy winner which became an instant global icon, even though the architects knew nothing about cricket!
2000 Alsop & Stormer’s Peckham Library (project architect Christophe Egret) was a winner which acted as a catalyst for the regeneration of the area which has been under way ever since.
2001 Wilkinson Eyre’s Magna Centre in Rotherham was an impressive project, but a perverse decision on the part of the judges, who managed to ignore what should have won that year, Nick Grimshaw and Anthony Hunt’s Eden Project.
2002 Wilkinson Eyre’s Gateshead Millennium Bridge was a good winner, assuming you think a bridge is a piece of architecture.
2003 Herzog & de Meuron’s Laban dance centre in Deptford was delightful, but did it have more impact on the evolution of architecture than Bill Dunster Architects’ BedZED project?
2004 Foster & Partners’ ‘Gherkin’ office building was another instant global icon and a worthy winner. But why wasn’t Future Systems’ heroic Birmingham Selfridges even shortlisted? It re-thought the department store type.
2005 EMBT and RMJM’s Edinburgh parliament complex won, but as a piece of synthetic architectural thinking, Zaha Hadid’s BMW Central Building in Leipzig was outstanding.
2006 Barajas Airport terminal, Madrid, was a worthy winner by Richard Rogers Partnership.
2007 David Chipperfield’s Marbach Literature Centre had less zest than his Americas Cup building in Valencia; neither in the UK under the old rules, and only two UK buildings were shortlisted that year.
2008 Accordia, by FCB Studios, Alison Brooks and Maccreanor Lavington. Good winner, even though the social housing element was yet to be built.
2009 Rogers Stirk Harbour’s Maggie’s Centre had nowhere near the short or long-term impact of BDP’s Liverpool One masterplan.
2010 Zaha won if for the Maxxi centre in Rome, but it was neck and neck with David Chipperfield’s Neues Museum, Berlin.
2011 Zaha again with the Evelyn Grace school in Brixton. Worthy, but the best building that year was the Velodrome by Hopkins Architects.
2012 No arguing with Stanton Williams’ Sainsbury Laboratory in Cambridge.
2013 Witherford Watson Mann’s Astley Castle retrofit was interesting, but the inspirational architecture that year was Niall McLaughlin’s chapel for Ripon College.
2014 Haworth Tompkins’ Everyman Theatre, Liverpool, was a good choice.
2015 AHMM’s Burntwood School, Wandsworth, proved what architecture could do for school design.
2016 Caruso St John’s gallery in Lambeth was a consolation prize for their Walsall Gallery near miss back in 2000.
2017 dRMM’s minimalist reworking of Hastings Pier was undone shortly after the award, alas, but was a radical winner.
2018 Foster + Partners’ outstanding Bloomberg HQ immediately got a kicking from people who hate (a) big buildings; (b) big commercial buildings; and (c) big practices that design big commercial buildings. Childishness qualified by envy.
2019 I would have been tempted to go for London Bridge (Grimshaw) or Macallan’s (RSH). However, there is undeniably a case for a rare example of a well-considered public housing project, particularly one with outstanding environmental credentials, so congratulations to Mikhail Riches and Cathy Hawley.
Let’s face it, only the jury visits all the shortlisted schemes. Argument is fun, but in the end what matters is the jury’s verdict – at least as far as the prize is concerned. Everything else will be a matter for history.