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Time to apologise to past Stirling judges I’ve indirectly lambasted

Rory Olcayto
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Picking an outright winner of this year’s RIBA Stirling Prize is going to be tough, says Rory Olcayto

Goddamn Louis Kahn, this is going to be tough! I refer to this year’s RIBA Stirling Prize of course, and the task of picking a winner. I’m on the jury this year, along with Peter Clegg, Steve Tompkins, Theresa Sackler and RIBA president Jane Duncan. As ever (he’s done this every year since the first one in 1996) RIBA’s head of awards, Tony Chapman, is also along for the ride: not as a judge but as our chaperone and guide. Tony is the Stirling’s steady-handed midwife and his wonderful ‘secret history’ of the prize is a must-read.

We’ve spent four days together in Manchester, Airdrie and London, visiting Britain’s best buildings. And, frustratingly, I’m no closer to knowing which one is most deserving than I was when the shortlist was first announced in July.

So let me start by apologising to all those poor Stirling Prize judges I’ve indirectly lambasted over the years by decrying previous winners of Britain’s most coveted architecture prize as ‘not the right choice’.

Convincing fellow judges is even more difficult than picking the right building

Picking the ‘right’ building is difficult enough, especially given how hard it is to compare them. But convincing your fellow judges, especially those who are more experienced than you in such matters and not only have designed similar buildings to the ones under consideration but have also won the Stirling Prize before, as Peter and Steve have done … well, that’s even more difficult.

And if you think that means convincing the new RIBA prez and Theresa Sackler is any easier, forget it. Everyone’s mind is their own in this game. And everyone is as right as you. Sometimes more right, if you choose to really listen. What I’m trying to say is, I get it now, I get it. It’s tough. I’m sorry. But this year’s crop?  Tougher than ever before to decide between. Yes, I would say that. But really, it is (ask Tony!)

Let’s run through the list: MUMA’s Whitworth? Serious architecture by serious architects. The Maggie’s Centre in Airdrie by Reiach and Hall? Thorough, logical, kind, friendly. RSHP’s NEO Bankside? A laser-guided, fully-formed, Neo-gothic townscape. Níall McLaughlin’s Darbishire Place? Excellent ordinary. Burntwood School? Allford Hall Monaghan Morris at the top of its game in a sector it knows very, very well. Heneghan Peng’s Greenwich University? Hard-working contextual architecture made to look easy by a practice hitting its stride. See what I mean?  TOUGH.

Visiting the buildings has been a blast

Still, it not coal mining. It’s not something that I’d rather not be doing and I’m not complaining. Visiting the buildings has been a blast. I’ve loved every minute of it and I am enormously grateful to the RIBA for selecting me as a judge. But it’s not over yet. We’ve still to reconvene to decide our winner.

The opportunity to experience the buildings and speak with the architects and clients, however, is over. What I will remember most fondly is the dedication, the commitment, the sheer verve and ingenuity that each architect we spoke with showed in relation to their project and their client. Stuart McKnight. Neil Gillespie. Graham Stirk. Níall McLaughlin. Paul Monaghan. Róisín Heneghan. I salute you. All the same, nothing’s changed. I’m still none the wiser.

Goddamn Louis Kahn. This is going to be tough!

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