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The problem with drawing up a female Gold Medal list

Paul Finch

There are plenty of deserving people who have been denied the Gold Medal, both men and women, writes Paul Finch

Some years ago, I was part of a trio, The Philistine Fellowship, which had fun informally awarding our own RIBA Gold Medal each year. The award would be made on the night of the real award, and would take place close to the RIBA – in the Dover Castle pub. A citation would be prepared and read out, and we would toast our winner.

The rules of engagement were simple: the architect in question had to be a more significant figure than someone already on the list and had to be dead. Our first medallist was Gottfried Semper; the last was Charles Moore – Rowan Moore (no relation) kindly accepting the award on CM’s behalf.

While controversy raged around choices in some years (Pugin and William Burges failed to make the grade, despite vigorous support from one member of the fellowship) it never extended to discussing gender – unconscious bias on the part of the all-male trio, no doubt. So it was with some pleasure that I read the announcement last week that plans are afoot to name an alternative Gold Medal list, all except one to be a woman, thus reflecting the fact that only one woman has won the medal outright – Zaha Hadid.

Since the medal’s inception, there have been 169 winners, no award being made in 1901 and 1924. It would be reasonable to make that 168, since the silly award in 1999 to the entire city of Barcelona cannot be said to be gender-relevant. And, since it would be ungracious to deprive Ray Eames or Patty Hopkins of the medals won jointly with husbands, let’s say the new list could comprise 165 great women architects and one man.

The difficulty for any selection panel will be the dearth of women architects in the 19th century who would have been eligible to be medallists. Far easier since 1945, but still pretty tough, if you are going to argue that the male recipients in any given year were clearly less important than the woman being proposed.

For this game to be fun, you need to explain why the man is being dumped. And then there is the little matter of whether partner teams will be eligible—for example Alison and Peter Smithson. Perhaps the Philistine Fellowship should be revived, of course with three additional women members, to discuss these weighty matters.

It must be said that if one were interested only in architecture rather than gender, there are plenty of men who never won the medal but might have. It is surprising, to put it mildly, that Aldo Rossi didn’t receive it. And what about Lewerentz, or Asplund? Or Bruce Graham? From a strictly architectural point of view, shouldn’t Philip Johnson have been acknowledged? And, as brilliant influence and provocateur, Cedric Price?

This one could run and run.

London road management is increasing pollution

Sadiq Khan is proud, with some justification, of his ongoing policies to cut air pollution in the capital, via his Ultra Low Emission Zone. While air quality has improved immeasurably since 1945, London is just not clean enough by international standards.

However, it must be said that schizophrenic policies in respect of road management on the part of the London Mayor and some within Transport for London (TfL) are making things far worse than they need be.

This is because pollution increases when traffic is at a standstill: it is not so much speed that matters, but flow. The more the traffic stops, the worse the pollution becomes.

You might think that a rational approach to keep things on the move would be to maximise flow using the full capacity of the system. You could not be more mistaken.

The attitude of the planners responsible for bus lanes is akin to that of a pub manager telling half the staff to take a break just as people start coming out of their offices at 5.30. (Incidentally, TfL keeps jolly quiet about average bus occupancy, but if it is more than 10 people it would be a surprise. The last time I checked with an ex-TfL staffer, it was eight.)

Generally speaking, only a madman would reduce capacity at times of maximum demand; but that is what happens now – and the number of all-day restricted lanes appears to be increasing, making matters worse.

And London needs more capacity, not less – because we now accommodate tens of thousands of Uber drivers, constantly driving around but, needless to say, never paying the Congestion Charge, even though their vehicles are privately owned.

You can add to this the alarmingly unco-ordinated approach to management of road closures due to repair or other forms of construction. Plus the Met’s scrapping of its former band of specialist traffic wardens, whose job was to sort out vehicles causing obstructions (not overrunning on meters).

You couldn’t make this up except in a surreal fantasy where deliberate suppression of road capacity is designed to benefit people who aren’t there. I refer to the nutty cyclist lanes which have brought west-east traffic on the Thames embankment to a grinding halt. Cyclist are noticeable by their absence for long periods when the vehicle lane is nose-to-tail.

So to the examination question: Given how brilliant it is in dealing with everything below ground, is TfL’s attitude to surface transport the result of (a) incompetence or (b) malice?

Alas, it seems to be a bit of both.

Onward and upward

Goodman Group, the developer of industrial and warehouse premises, has just paid £70 million for a 9.5-acre site in Park Royal, west London. Goodman is doing the sensible thing by planning a multistorey logistics/warehouse development on this costly land.

Why don’t we insist on multistorey warehousing across London, thereby releasing huge amounts of land for housing? That can be multistorey, too.


Readers' comments (4)

  • All the points made about traffic in London make me wonder whether comparable cities around the world have developed ways of overcoming some of these problems - at least the forecast rapid shift to electricity (and maybe hydrogen) to power vehicles will hopefully drastically improve air quality.

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  • There is an easy answer to anyone left fuming by sitting in their car in an Embankment traffic jam: On yer bike.

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  • Presumably this includes the old, the young, people with luggage, people on crutches and with other disabilities etc. The arrogance of the cyclist lobby is almost beyond belief -- men in Lycra as unappetising physically as they are intellectually. .

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  • My comment above was written in haste and sounds much ruder than was intended. No offence caused, I hope.

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