In the Winner's Circle

Zaha Hadid’s Stirling Prize-winning Evelyn Grace Academy.
Hufton & Crow / Courtesy Zaha Hadid Architects

The RIBA’s annual Stirling Prize for architecture claims that it honors the building (and the practice) that has “made the greatest contribution to British architecture in the past year." The award has no equivalent on this side of the pond, so it’s hard to fathom just how much public attention it garners for architecture there. It’s true that in this country we have the Pritzker (for lifetime achievement, not a building), many local AIA awards programs for buildings and, of course, the sixty-year-old PA awards. These awards are judged by knowledgeable insiders, still it’s doubtful that anyone outside the profession has a clue that the award even exists or can name its annual winners.

The Stirling Prize however is front-page news in all the major British papers, it’s talked about in pubs, and most impressively it’s televised on BBC 2 to a huge (for architecture) audience. In fact, until the irrepressible Will Alsop uttered something obscene in accepting his Stirling Prize for the Peckham Library in 2000, the prize was broadcast live.

The Stirling Prize may be a particularly British invention and phenomenon in that it is similar to that country’s Booker and Turner Prize for literature, which have very high public profiles. The Stirling was founded in 1966 and selects its six yearly short-listed projects by selecting from the RIBA’s previous years award-winning buildings. The jury visits all the buildings on the list (which often are abroad; last year none of the contenders were in Britain) in order to decide who will get the £20,000 prize.

This years jury included Angela Brady (president), Peter Cook, engineer Hanif Kara, landscape designer Dan Pearson, and journalist Alison Brooks, who were all interviewed on the telly about the short-listed buildings: O’Donnell and Tuomey’s An Gaeláras Cultural Center in Derry, the Angel Building by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, the Folkwang Museum in Essen, Germany, by David Chipperfield, the Royal Shakespeare and Swan Theaters by Bennetts Associates; the Olympic Velodrome by Hopkins Architects, and Zaha Hadid’s  Evelyn Grace Academy in Brixton. It was a sign of their maturity as a design- and energy-conscious society that none of the judges talked about the “sustainability” of the individual projects but rather more about their unique design contribution to society and the surrounding environments at large.  The prize was held this year in the Magna Science Adventure Centre, Wilkinson Eyre’s remodeled Steel factory (a Stirling winner in 2001) outside Sheffield. Over 1,000 architects, designers, clients, and journalists were in attendance. In the room the consensus was that Hopkin’s Velodrome was the clear winner and perhaps a sentimental choice given Hopkins’ advanced age and lack of a Stirling award. RIBA conducted a public vote, and the Velodrome was the clear favorite. But the jury selected Hadid’s Evelyn Grace Academy, and the announcement was greeted by deafening silence in the Magna Centre.

It may be that there is a jealousy of Zaha’s fame and celebrity in the U.K., but the audience seemed stunned by the choice and—with Zaha not in the room—the award was collected by Patrik Schumacher. As at the Oscars, the winners are kept under strict wraps until the award ceremony (perhaps to force potential winners to purchase dinner tables), creating a real buzz about the competition that has people tuning in to the broadcast to find out the winner.

That seems as it should be. Architecture is the most public of arts in the manner of its design and construction, use, and reception but in this country it’s all to often the province of professionals and insiders. Society at large rarely gives credit or recognizes architecture for its contribution. This is a long historic problem for American architecture, but it’s time for the profession to think about how to more loudly promote that contribution. An awards ceremony like the Stirling is the perfect model to get the message into the public domain. How about an AN award for the Best Building in 2012?

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