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.