The RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) Stirling Prize, named after the renowned architect James Stirling, was introduced in 1996 and is presented to “the architects of the UK building that has made the greatest contribution to the evolution of architecture in the past year.” It is the architectural equivalent of the Booker Prize for literature and Turner Prize for visual arts, but currently carries no prize money.
With the announcement last month of Norman Foster’s Bloomberg’s European Headquarters as the winner of the 2018 Stirling Prize came the inevitable grumpy commentary from certain quarters the architectural fraternity; much of it predictably tinged with green due to the extravagant brief and generous budget – and therefore high fees.
Just to be clear, Stirling is not a one-off prize; rather it is the culmination of a nine month journey which begins in January each year and culminates in this announcement in October. At the same ceremony, awards such as the Stephen Lawrence Prize and House of the Year are also revealed.
The process is this: final calls for entry are made in February by RIBA for any project completed within the past three years. This is not necessarily a new ‘building’ as conversions and bridges have gone all the way to be Stirling winners before. In normal circumstances it is the architectural firm who submits the project, but occasionally the client might nominate – which always sends its own message. The nominations are regionalised fairly logically into 12 ‘English Regional and National Offices’ and a fresh regional jury of four is put together each year by the respective RIBA Regional Representative. A Chair of the jury is nominated, who must be an architect without a project submitted for that particular region, but other members of the panel may include a landscape architect, an urban designer, a conservation advisor and, always, a local architect and a lay assessor. This person is sometimes from the construction industry, but never an architect.
Entries are first assessed by drawings, photographs and a written description. The judging criteria for the RIBA Awards is wide-ranging and leads to a refreshingly broad church of projects: capacity to stimulate, engage or delight its occupants, visitors and passers-by; architectural and conceptual ambition; environmental and economic sustainability; generous contribution to the public realm or environment; extent of innovation, invention or originality; use of materials and the rigour with which it is detailed; ability to inspire and endure as an exemplary work of architecture.
Occasionally, a panel member may know of the building and can give a first hand opinion, but a shortlist is eventually drawn up for the jury visit. There is no prescribed number of projects on the shortlist, but normally this ranges from between ten to fifteen depending on the quality of the year’s submissions.
The jury then embark on a two or three day road trip of the region in question, making stop-offs to meet the architect and client at each shortlisted building. The tour is always fascinating in that, whatever the make-up of the jury, consensus more often than not breaks out. There are always those projects which split the group, but in the drive time between visits and over dinner these rifts are healed – even if it involves the Chair pulling rank!
The reason to make the visits is to test the project against the award criteria, but also to witness the relationship between client and architect at the end of what can be a very long and arduous journey. The overarching reason to visit though, for me at least, is to experience the place. No amount of photographs can ever be a substitute for ‘feeling’ a building or place, and it is this sensory reaction which unites the various members of the jury as much, if not more, than the cerebral examination. As I have mentioned before in these articles, it is occasionally possible to be moved by a place; not as an architect, but as a human being.
Following the visits, those projects considered worthy of a RIBA Regional Award are put forward to RIBA HQ in Portland Place. Each project is carefully presented to the National Awards Panel by the Regional Chair, with any conflicts of interest dealt with by individuals leaving the darkened room.
Final results are then kept secret until the Regional Awards Dinner, which is normally in June. This is partly to retain the mystery from the public and partly to ensure ticket sales to the awards dinner as the whole process represents important revenue for RIBA. I have known a situation where an architect took an expensive table of ten to include his own team, client representatives, fellow consultants and the contractor, only to come away empty handed. As Chair of that regional jury that year and therefore presenter of the awards, I have say it was excruciating to witness. I am pleased to report that he re-submitted the following year with a fresh panel and the project was ultimately recognised (there is a two-bites-of-the-cherry policy).
Next, certain regional winners are ‘promoted’ to a National RIBA Award, and are therefore automatically considered for the Stirling Prize (are you still with me?). In truth, there is no doubt that some projects have achieved all they will that year, but it is at this stage that certain projects rise to the top tier