Give It to Us Sexy, Shiny, and in Public! the Stirling Prize for Architecture Is Ten Years Old. What Sort of Buildings Has It Rewarded, and What Has It Ignored? Giles Worsley Assesses This Most Maverick of the Arts Gongs
Worsley, Giles, New Statesman (1996)
The most mischievous thing I ever did when I sat on the RIBA Awards Committee was to manoeuvre the Tiree Shelter on to the Stirling Prize shortlist. I liked the idea that a [pounds sterling]95,000 ferry shelter could rival Norman Foster's [pounds sterling]100m British Museum Great Court. There was something about Sutherland Hussey's building that was intriguing. Its purity of line--no more than a pair of white walls ending in a glass box that framed and captured the wild landscape of this Romantic Scottish island--seemed magical. I loved the way the commonplace (a shelter against the wind while waiting for the local ferry) had been transformed, for a minimal budget, into the exceptional. This was architecture at its purest, and, as such, a worthy competitor for the Stirling. There was an added frisson: to assess it, the distinguished panel of judges would have to fit a tortuous excursion to one of the most inaccessible spots in the British Isles into their crowded schedule. To me, that was irresistible.
Sadly, the Tiree Shelter did not win. None of the shortlisted entries had a chance against Herzog & de Meuron's even more magical Laban Centre in Deptford. But in a different year, without a clear front-runner, it could have slipped through, for with the Stirling, as in all high-profile competitions, there is nothing inevitable about who wins. Fashion, sentimentality and the maverick opinions of the judges and even the shortlisters all play their part, as is clear looking back over the prize in the tenth year of its existence.
It is hard to remember quite what a ropy state British architecture was in when the Stirling Prize began in 1996. The profession was still picking itself up from years of recession, while the tidal waves of Lottery millions that subsequently transformed British architectural ambition were still a distant dream. In later years the winner, Stephen Hodder's Centenary Building at the University of Salford, would have been hard-pressed even to reach the shortlist. But for the newly launched competition it hit several buttons: the practice was young, media-savvy and northern. The decision gave out all the right noises about being open and forward-looking.
Since then, the Stirling has slowly crept into the national consciousness to the point where it has taken its place alongside those other hardy perennials, the Booker and Turner Prizes. With the help of Channel 4, it has attained a glamorous inevitability, and the sort of building that generally wins has changed. This is just as well: a diet of worthy northern buildings would never have sustained the Stirling.
So who has won and, looking back, were they the right winners? Certain sorts of building have always been doomed: specifically, private houses (too self-indulgent) and (other than one exceptional case) commercial buildings. Architects are still shot through with a certain moralism and remain uncomfortable with buildings celebrating capitalism. The ideal winner is still a public building. But moralism goes only so far. Architects are also seduced by glamour. Worthy buildings never win the Stirling, whether they be Bill Dunster's environmentally friendly BedZED housing or BDP's innovative inner-city Hampden Gurney School. If you want worthy, follow the Prime Minister's Better Buildings Award.
Given the need for glamour, it is not surprising that judges have preferred the fashionable high-tech, where architecture meets engineering. These are easily comprehensible, graphically dramatic buildings, preferably reducible to a single-line drawing in the mind. Foster's Gherkin and his American Air Museum at Duxford, Lord's Media Centre from Future Systems, and Wilkinson Eyre's Millennium Bridge at Gateshead have all sailed through. …