Worthy winners

RIBA

Worthy winners

Global Opportunity 2015  |  RIBA

As Burntwood School wins the Stirling Prize Tony Chapman Hon FRIBA looks back over two decades of prize winners

The RIBA Stirling Prize is the culmination of what is probably the most rigorous judging process in world architecture involving around 80 judges, three stages of judging and visits by three different juries. So winning the prize means a lot.

The 2015 winners with Burntwood School in Wandsworth, Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, had been shortlisted three times before, once with another school, once with a health centre and once with an office development.

The Director in charge of the project Paul Monaghan said on winning: ‘Schools can and should be more than just practical, functional buildings; they need to elevate the aspirations of children, teachers and the wider community.

Good school design makes a difference to the way students value themselves and their education, and we hope that Burntwood winning the RIBA Stirling Prize shows that this is worth investing in.’

The judges said of it: ‘Burntwood sets a standard in school design that every child in Britain deserves. It is a culmination of many years of creative toil by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris in designing schools up and down the country. This is their masterpiece.’

Worthy winners
AHMM are the opposite of starchitects, concentrating on doing ordinary buildings supremely well, something that was highly commended by the 2015 judges led by RIBA President Jane Duncan, who said: “Burntwood School shows us how superb school design can be at the heart of raising our children’s educational enjoyment and achievement.”

It takes almost as long to judge a building as it does to build it – and it requires nearly as many people. The regional awards teams sort out all the entries – up to 500 a year – and organize the judging in the regions which leads to RIBA Regional Awards and recommendations for National Awards.

These are ratified – or not – by the RIBA’s Awards Group who then pay visits to the best of these to decide which six projects should be visited by the Stirling Prize jury. It is this diversity of judging that gives the RIBA’s awards their unique rigour.

We named the prize for Jim Stirling largely because he was recently deceased and therefore couldn’t enter – we thought. The first prize went to a young architect, RIBA President-to-be Stephen Hodder.

A year later Jim Stirling won it from the grave, with his business partner Michael Wilford’s help. Wilford waved the £20,000 cheque (not the trophy oddly) and declared, ‘This is for Jim.’

In 2000 we landed the TV deal which meant Stirling had really come of age and it had achieved its avowed aim of bringing architecture to as wide a public as possible. However, the live broadcast of the 2005 Stirling Prize went off air for a minute when pranksters unplugged the cable carrying the signal from the National Museum of Scotland to the outside broadcast van.

Past Stirling judges have included some of the most pre-eminent women in their field, including Stella McCartney, Tracey Emin and Janet Street-Porter. Other well-known judges include James Dyson, Antony Gormley and Julian Barnes.

Three architects have won the prize twice: Norman Foster with his American Air Museum at Duxford in 1998 and with the Gherkin in 2004; Richard Rogers with Barajas Airport 2006 and Maggie’s London in 2009; and Zaha Hadid with MAXXI Museum of Modern Art in Rome in 2010 and the Evelyn Grace Academy in Brixton in 2011.

Going for gold
Dame Zaha Hadid also won the 2016 Royal Gold Medal. Unlike the RIBA Stirling Prize which goes to a building, this venerable prize, presented annually since 1848, goes to an architect for a significant body of work.

Oddly it was conceived as a design competition to produce a building to house the recently formed Royal Institute of British Architects. When none of the entries was deemed worthy the prize was re-purposed, with royal approval, as a medal for architects (and very occasionally non-architects such as engineers, planners, architectural historians and writers).

Royal approval is still required: the RIBA has to obtain the agreement of the Monarch though that has never been refused. It will be interesting to see if King Charles III will take a more active interest in the identity of the winner.

Unquestionable talent
In response to the news she was to receive the Medal Zaha Hadid said: “I am very proud to be awarded the Royal Gold Medal, in particular, to be the first woman to receive the honour in her own right. I would like to thank Peter Cook, Louisa Hutton and David Chipperfield for the nomination and Jane Duncan and the Honours Committee for their support.

We now see more established female architects all the time. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. Sometimes the challenges are immense. There has been tremendous change over recent years and we will continue this progress. This recognition is an honour for me and my practice, but equally, for all our clients.

It is always exciting to collaborate with those who have great civic pride and vision.”

The architect who nominated her, Professor Sir Peter Cook, himself a Royal Gold Medallist with the architectural collective Archigram in 2002, concluded his official citation with the words: “Zaha shares with (previous winners) the precious role of towering, distinctive and relentless influence upon all around her that sets the results apart from the norm.

Such self-confidence is easily accepted in film-makers and football managers, but causes some architects to feel uncomfortable. Maybe they are secretly jealous of her unquestionable talent. Let’s face it, we might have awarded the medal to a worthy, comfortable character.

We didn’t, we awarded it to Zaha: larger than life, bold as brass and certainly on the case. Our Heroine. How lucky we are to have her in London.”

The Royal Gold Medal is sometimes described as a lifetime achievement award, but some winners – Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, Herzog & de Meuron and David Chipperfield – have been in their 40s.

All four have also won Stirling. The way the winner is decided could not be more different. Instead of scores of architects and non-architects scurrying all over the place, the winner of the Royal Gold Medal is decided by a panel of architects (and again) non-architects who sit in a room at the RIBA studying and debating the nominees’ work and deciding the winner.

White smoke all but emerges from the roof of 66 Portland Place at the end of the day, so important is the decision.

The name of the new winner is carved into the wall of the ground floor of the RIBA Headquarters, making it literally a part of the fabric of the Institute and of architecture, taking its place alongside that of almost all the greats: Charles Barry (1850), George Gilbert Scott (1859), Edwin Lutyens (1921), Frank Lloyd Wright (1941), Le Corbusier (1953), Alvar Aalto (1957); Mies van der Rohe (1959); Berthold Lubetkin (1982), Oscar Niemeyer (1998) and the City of Barcelona (sic – 1999).

Or not quite. Because since 2008 we ran out of room on the wall behind the reception desk and subsequent names have been carved into the wall of the Architecture Gallery, requiring scaffolding and a hard hat for the engraver. There should be room enough there to accommodate the rest of the century’s winners.

Global presence
The Royal Gold Medal is an international prize: sometimes the best part of a decade passes without a British winner. Because the RIBA is not a trade union for British architects, nor is it simply a UK professional body, it is an international body with over 4,000 overseas members whose remit is to promote architecture around the world.

That is why we are setting up a new RIBA International Prize, the first edition of which will be presented in December 2016 to the architects of ‘the building thought by the judges to be the most significant and inspirational of the year.

The winning building will demonstrate visionary, innovative thinking, excellence of execution, whilst making a generous contribution to society and to its physical context – be it the public realm, the natural environment or both.’

As such the prize, which is open to all qualified architects anywhere in the world, reaffirms the visionary purpose of the RIBA as stated in its 1837 charter for ‘the general advancement of Civil Architecture.’ As ever the RIBA is building on its past as it to reward the best buildings and architects of the future.

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