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Stirling Prize sends a message about sustainability and social purpose

Emily Booth
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Awards can both reflect and set the agenda for architecture, says Emily Booth

So a council housing scheme on the edge of Norwich city centre hasn’t just been nominated for the RIBA Stirling Prize, it has won it. (And, incidentally, it’s the project AJ readers voted to win – by a good margin – in our online reader poll.)

Congratulations to Mikhail Riches and Cathy Hawley for their exceptional Goldsmith Street project, a development of ultra-low-energy homes made up of two and three-storey houses and flats. The design is simple and honest, the environmental design considerations are straightforward and repeatable, the spaces are substantial, and the energy savings for the residents are considerable. It’s design that really benefits ordinary people.

Goldsmiths jimstephenson 7 lo res

Goldsmiths jimstephenson 7 lo res

We’re seeing a shift in what wins awards in architecture. While society faces a global environmental emergency and a chronic housing shortage, particularly in social housing provision, this win shows us what architecture can and should be doing – and it’s the opposite of showy and exclusive.

As George Kafka wrote in the AJ’s appraisal of the Passivhaus project: ‘Should Goldsmith Street win [the prize], 100 years after the passing of the Addison Act that paved the way for council housebuilding, let it be the benchmark going forward, not the exception.’

Indeed, it has been a week of welcome change in the awards-sphere. Grafton Architects, headed by Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, is the 2020 RIBA Royal Gold Medal recipient

Farrell and McNamara’s considered, exceptional practice is a worthy winner

Farrell and McNamara’s considered, exceptional practice is a worthy winner and its recognition is an important step-change in what has been an historically male-dominated and individual-focused award.

The role of the team is important here; not only have women often been overlooked when we think about the architectural canon and its panoply of award-winners – so has the importance of the wider teams that make buildings. The myth of the lone male genius is crumbling. 

‘In times of change and different phases the profession needs to nurture talent through thick and thin,’ says Farrell. ‘The more voices we hear, the better the architecture.’

Those voices belong to the young and emerging as well as the more experienced. The AJ Student Prize, now in its second year, has celebrated the adaptable and innovative thinking of those at the beginning of their careers. Sustainability and social purpose are themes that resonate through their work.

Do awards reflect or set the agenda? They can do both. And they can certainly send messages. There are messages here. Let’s act on them.

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