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Would one Stirling Prize jury come to the same conclusion as another?

Stirling Prize
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AJ architecture editor Laura Mark wonders what decision the jury will make when the winner of the RIBA Stirling Prize is decided next week

‘Any jury does its best and it is not always right,’ says Richard Rogers in an interview for the AJ’s documentary on the Stirling Prize. The film adds a new dimension to our coverage of the award this year, and will screen on the AJ website next week.

The Stirling Prize jury has a difficult task ahead of it. The pressure is on to select the ‘right’ recipient of ‘architecture’s highest accolade’, as the RIBA puts it, but how does the jury arrive at its decision? And would different judges pick a different winner?

‘Different judges will make different decisions in different years’

Simon Allford

Simon Allford, co-founder of Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, which picked up the Stirling Prize last year with Burntwood School, believes the choice of jury has a large bearing on the outcome. ‘Different judges will make different decisions in different years,’ Allford says.

And this year, Patrik Schumacher’s chairmanship seems, if anything, to add to the uncertainty, given his outspoken and iconoclastic views on architecture.

This got me wondering how different another jury’s decision could be. So I decided to assemble my own judging panel to find out.

I recruited three judges – an architect and two non-architects, deliberately inviting people who might be expected to give an alternative perspective and who aren’t afraid to ruffle feathers: Invisible Studio founder Piers Taylor, developer Martyn Evans, and ex-AOC participation specialist Daisy Froud. Together we visited all six buildings on the shortlist. We’ll reveal which we believe should win in the film, which will be released the day before the RIBA makes its announcement at the prize-giving event at 66 Portland Place on 6 October.

For the film, I also visited past winning buildings and interviewed previous finalists to unpick what the Stirling Prize means to British architecture. What it made me realise is how much it means to some practices to be shortlisted for the prize. For some, it brings unprecedented commercial success, propelling their practice to new levels, bringing in new clients and putting their projects in the public eye. At Outhouse, Chris Loyn tells me Loyn & Co has picked up five more country homes after being named on the shortlist.

‘Being shortlisted is the ultimate benchmark that you must be doing something right,’ says Allford – AHMM was shortlisted four times before winning.

Loyn & Co has picked up five more country homes after being named on the Stirling shortlist

However, O’Donnell + Tuomey co-founder Sheila O’Donnell – who has been shortlisted five times – disagrees. She says: ‘It hasn’t done very much for our practice to be shortlisted. It gives everyone a boost but we don’t think we’ve ever won any work out of the Stirling Prize. I don’t think it has ever helped us get on any shortlists. As soon as they announce the winner, everyone else is gone.’

The practice’s LSE Student Centre was one of the previous finalists I visited, alongside Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners’ West London Maggie’s Centre, Herzog & de Meuron’s Laban Centre, OMA’s Gartnavel Maggie’s and Zaha Hadid Architects’ Evelyn Grace Academy. The film shows how these projects – at the time thought of as the best buildings in Britain – have stood the test of time. Some have improved – at both Maggie’s Centres the planting has matured and they now feel properly embedded in their sites; Evelyn Grace, on the other hand, is showing wear and tear.

Stirling Prize

Stirling Prize

Source: Jim Stephenson

Herzog & de Meuron’s 2003 Stirling Prize-winning Laban Building

But the current judging process doesn’t take into account how this year’s six shortlisted projects will look in the future, nor how they will be maintained and managed. So, as a jury, we have to set these thoughts aside as we look at this year’s shortlisted projects, all of which have been occupied for differing amounts of time.

What I’ve learned through visiting the shortlisted projects is that judging really is a challenging and difficult process. What struck our alternative jury was how difficult it was to compare the relative merits of such different projects – ranging from a private house in the countryside to a college building in Glasgow.

What struck our alternative jury was how difficult it was to compare the relative merits of such different projects

As for criteria, Taylor is seeking something new and innovative that changes the story of architecture, while Evans is looking for something that can be learned from and replicated, and Froud wants a project that has challenged the architect. For me, it is about getting ‘that’ feeling when you walk into the building.

While I’d rather the jury award a building solely on merit, the more I think about how the award is seen both by the general public and the profession, the harder it becomes to divorce the prize from the political message it sends out. I wonder how much that is thought about in the RIBA’s judging room each year? I suspect quite a lot.

Coincidentally, stopping for a bite in Tintern Abbey on our visit to Outhouse the AJ’s alternative panel bumped into a contingent from the official squad. Sat at a table in a tea shop by Tintern Abbey were Paul Monaghan, Patrik Schumacher, Róisín Heneghan and Rachel Whiteread. We swapped notes on Outhouse but at the same time felt perhaps we shouldn’t as though the judging demanded greater solemnity and discretion. The RIBA does well to keep that sense of mystique about the Stirling Prize. The result rarely gets out ahead of the announcement. It has little time to, since the judges make their decision just hours before the awards ceremony.

The alternative judging panel will meet next week to deliberate over its decision. I still don’t know which should win. It will, just like the official jury, all be down to the discussion on the day.

Read what the AJ’s jury is looking for in its winning project

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Gosh, how exciting.

    Meanwhile, back in the real world, perhaps your judges might try asking dRMM Architects, who on their website claim one of their strengths is 'our ability to reflect on the bigger picture, discovering through local consultation what residents want', whether they consider the demolition of the 1,200 council homes on the Heygate Estate to be part of 'the bigger picture,' and believe the eviction of its 3,000 residents from the borough to be 'what they want'?

    They go on to claim that 'As London seeks to cope with its chronic housing shortage and improve inner-city living, we believe that an awareness of the effects of the built environment at a local level should be paramount.' As you sit down to tea in Tintern Abbey, perhaps you could ask your faux panel of judges if they think the demolition of the 104 council homes of the former Wyngrave House and their replacement with 235 luxury apartments in which a 2-bedroom unit is selling for £725,000 is reducing the housing shortage in London and improving inner-city living for those of us not on a banker's salary?

    As for the RIBA, in nominating dRMM Architects for this year's Stirling Prize, it described Trafalgar Place as 'an outstanding site plan which connects the development to the local community.' If you can drag your conversation away from whether you get 'that' feeling when you walk into Trafalgar Place, perhaps you could raise the question of 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 rent its luxury housing?

    And if you run into the real Stirling Prize jury again, could you ask Rachel Whiteread whether she intends to cast the space where the Heygate Estate once stood?

    Simon Elmer
    Architects for Social Housing

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