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The Stirling Prize jury shouldn’t be distracted by politics

Will Hurst

Three of this year’s Stirling shortlisted buildings have been discussed in ethical terms but, while questions should be asked, the prize needs to go to the best piece of architecture, says Will Hurst

Should ethical and political considerations affect judgements on architecture? It’s a question begged by three of the six authors discussing this year’s RIBA Stirling Prize nominated buildings in AJ’s Stirling issue. While dRMM’s Trafalgar Place is probably the most controversial development on the list (and is expected to face a protest on the night of the awards from the group Architects for Social Housing because of its alleged role in south London gentrification), the Blavatnik School of Government and to a lesser extent Newport Street Gallery have also been queried on ethical grounds. 

Architecture is by its nature political, so these questions deserve to be asked. But should they really affect the jury’s deliberations? The RIBA says the prize is judged against a range of criteria including ‘design vision; innovation and originality; capacity to stimulate, engage and delight occupants and visitors; accessibility and sustainability; how fit the building is for its purpose and the level of client satisfaction’. In other words, judges are tasked only with weighing up questions of design quality rather than considering tricky issues about where a building’s funding has come from or what effect a project might have on an area’s existing community. 

It is fanciful to imagine that the wider political context of individual Stirling nominees never enters the judges’ minds

As Laura Mark observes in her introduction to our coverage of the shortlist, it is fanciful to imagine that the wider political context of individual Stirling nominees – and the PR pros and cons of the RIBA honouring them – never enter the judges’ minds. But the Stirling recognises great design rather than moral virtue, so such thinking should be discouraged. No doubt it will be, given that this year’s jury is chaired by Zaha Hadid Architects partner Patrik Schumacher, who once told the AJ that ‘the urge to do good indiscriminately cannot be the way forward to lift architecture’s deflated self‑image’.

Turning to another ethical issue, London mayor Sadiq Khan’s announcement that he has tasked former chair of the Public Accounts Committee Margaret Hodge MP with reviewing the Garden Bridge is a welcome development, given the AJ’s long-running investigation into the scheme’s procurement. The inquiry – which Hodge has said may take up to six months – will examine value-for-money questions as well as procurement, and will ‘investigate the work of TfL, the GLA and other relevant authorities around the Garden Bridge going back to when the project was first proposed’. 

While Garden Bridge opponents will no doubt use this as a stick in their fight to prevent the scheme being built, the mayor continues to back the construction of the bridge on the condition that no more taxpayers’ money is spent on the £185 million development. The Hodge review may well be important for future projects developed or facilitated by the public sector. Just don’t expect it to affect the Garden Bridge’s prospects. Thomas Heatherwick’s design could yet make the 2020 Stirling Prize shortlist.

Readers' comments (7)

  • I don't know if I entirely agree. Yes, the Stirling Prize should not be used as a tool for pushing a singular politics or view of the world, it should remain a tool for discussion.

    But politics cannot be set to one side as it is rooted in what design is and how it came to be. Where would you draw the line? What if Guantanamo Bay had a beautiful waterboarding extension built by a London architect, perfectly designed for function and brief and beautoful?

    Hypothetical, but not a million miles from precedents set by Foster in Kazakhstan, Hadid in more than one place and Koolhaus in his CCTV building. You've had this discussion and debate in AJ before, after 'that' Radio 4 Today episode, but I think it's failry dangerous to allow competitions off the hook to solely because then it simply becomes a promotional opp leaning heavily on tightly controlled photographic/mediated images and as shallow as a beauty contest.

    I've always thought that eligibility for the Stirling Prize should only be for buildings 6 years after opening. Then one can ascertain the success, the aesthetic dating or failing, the purpose and all that becomes known only after it becomes used.

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  • Yes I was aware that you could come up with hypothetical examples so extreme that a juror would be forced to take these political/ethical considerations into account. However, the fact remains that this is a design competition and there's arguably a growing danger of distraction from things that have nothing to do with this core purpose. In my view there are better places to have the ethical arguments. On top of that, I would not expect the RIBA itself to allow a beautiful waterboarding centre onto the shortlist!

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  • Ben Derbyshire

    A refreshingly clear analysis from Will Hurst, helpfully re-stating the relationship between the design professions and the political context in which we work, and illuminating what I have come to call ethical professionalism.

    It seems to me that the particular issues requiring clarification are our duty to the environment, to act with probity (especially in foreign markets) and not to infringe human rights in the way we design and deliver services. The Edge Commission report on ethics and the public interest argued that we should develop and standardise a national code of conduct/ethics across the built environment professions, building on shared experience in the UK and internationally. The RIBA is responding to this call.

    I have long argued that the Institutes, including the RIBA, would do well to avoid the mistake of attempting to stretch beyond their political legitimacy and reach. The Institute’s outreach message, as a membership organisation, must also fulfil its purpose of serving its members and society, both of which, naturally enough, include the full range of political perspectives.

    We must remember that the RIBA Council chamber is neither the House of Commons, nor the United Nations Assembly. Our purpose there is to act as Trustees to deliver our charter. Whilst many (me included) are concerned that current housing and planning policies do not serve the ambition to create mixed neighbourhoods particularly well, not everyone believes that public money should be used to subsidise families to live in areas they could not otherwise afford to.

    Ben Derbyshire
    Chair, HTA Design LLP.

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  • Are we getting to you, Will?

    Declaring the demolition of council estates, the eviction of their residents, and the replacement of their homes with real estate investments for the filthy rich a 'distraction' is not exactly the declaration of the social duties of the architectural profession we were looking for.

    As you will find at 6pm on Thursday, 6 October, when you attend the Stirling Prize award ceremony at the RIBA, there are one or two people who have a slightly different conception of what architects and architecture is for.

    If you, or anyone else in your ivory tower, would like to come down and join us, you're very welcome to add your voice to the growing protest against the shameful collusion of the architectural profession in the social cleansing of London, and take more than a dim view of institutions like the RIBA handing out prizes to those who do so.

    Built on the ruins of the demolished Heygate Estate, Stirling Prize nominated Trafalgar Place contains 235 so-called ‘high-quality’ homes, 52 of which are so-called ‘affordable housing’, which by now even readers of the AJ must know means for sale or rent at 80 per cent of market rate. To get an idea of what market rate is for ‘high-quality’ homes in Southwark, in today’s Zoopla a 2-bedroom flat in Trafalgar Place is on sale for £725,000. In contrast, owners of a 4-bedroom council flat on the former Heygate Estate were offered £190,000 in compensation for their demolished home. A disgraceful 8 homes in Trafalgar Place have been allocated for social rent. The site on which this property speculator’s investment opportunity is built was previously occupied by the demolished Wyngrave House, which provided 104 council homes for the local community.

    Whether you want it to be or not, Will, architecture is always political.

    Simon Elmer
    Architects for Social Housing

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  • Simon, yes I make the point that architecture is political in the column - have you actually read it? I also agree that architects have ethical responsibilities including with regard to social housing/gentrification. Why else do you think there's a five page news analysis on Aylesbury in the Stirling issue of AJ this week?

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  • Dear Ben

    It's refreshen to hear you affirm architect’s duty ‘not to infringe human rights in the way we design and deliver services’.

    Perhaps you please tell us, then, what your response is to the Secretary of State’s recent judgement that, under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the Aylesbury Estate regeneration on which your company, HTA Design, is the lead architectural practice violates residents’ ‘right to respect for their home’?

    Do you consider the Secretary of State’s ruling that, under the Equality Act 2010, the scheme discriminates against residents according to their age and race, sufficient to discontinue your unwavering support for this scheme?

    Do you intend to honour your existing contract with Southwark Labour Council and Notting Hill Housing Trust and continue to discriminate against and violate the human rights of residents on the Aylesbury Estate?

    Do you think it right that the Royal Institute of British Architects, of which you are the President Elect, has nominated Trafalgar Place, the first completed site on the adjoining Heygate Estate regeneration, for the 2016 Stirling Prize for violating the same human rights of the 3,000 residents that once lived there?

    In nominating dRMM Architects for this year's Stirling Prize, the RIBA described Trafalgar Place as 'an outstanding site plan which connects the development to the local community.' Would you explain how on-site security guards, gated access, anti-homeless spikes and CCTV cameras connect Trafalgar Place to a local community that cannot afford to buy or to rent its luxury housing?

    Finally, I would have hoped that the President Elect of the RIBA would know that the often repeated lie that council housing is subsidised by public money is a myth propagated by the property developers and councils that want the land they stand on. It doesn't bode well for the future of the RIBA as an institution to hear it repeated from the mouth of its future President.

    What stops the families you so casually dismiss from the neighbourhoods they can no longer afford to live in is the demolition of the council homes they have lived in for decades and their replacement with the luxury apartments the RIBA has seen fit to nominate for this year's Stirling Prize.

    See you on the 6th.

    Your sincerely

    Architects for Social Housing

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  • 'Politics' covers an awful lot of ground - but surely the very real concerns about the nature of inner London housing redevelopment are very different to those about the financier of an Oxford academic institution with what seem to be the best of intentions, if not credentials.
    London housing provision is a huge and growing scandal, and has the makings of a dangerous time bomb - whereas the Oxford school of government causes a stir because of the possibly dubious source of the funding.
    It's human nature for wealthy benefactors to want to see their 'gifts' bear their name - but I can't believe that they always do (can't think of an example) and the Oxford institution would've surely benefited from being named after some notable and respected figure in the history of the evolution of government. But I suppose this would be termed hypocrisy by some,

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