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Stirling Prize 2014: what should we value in architecture?

This year’s contenders for the prestigious Stirling Prize were recently announced. The prize is supposed to be “presented to the architects of the building that has made the greatest contribution to the…

Birmingham Library is one of the shortlisted buildings. Joe Giddens/PA Archive

This year’s contenders for the prestigious Stirling Prize were recently announced. The prize is supposed to be “presented to the architects of the building that has made the greatest contribution to the evolution of architecture”. “Evolution” is an interesting choice of term, and the prize has a long way to go if it is to achieve this goal.

London’s Shard is to go head to head with the Olympic swimming pool, a theatre in Liverpool, two university buildings and Birmingham’s new public library.

The shortlist presents no great surprises in terms of choice. The winner has fairly often been a civic or public building, of various size. The Scottish Parliament won the award in 2005. And much smaller in scale, Maggies Centre took the prize in 2009. This is a small pavilion scale building for cancer patients and their families in the grounds of Charing Cross Hospital. And winner’s clients have regularly included universities, those traditional patrons of “proper” architecture, most recently example being the Sainsbury Laboratory at Cambridge University by Stanton Williams.

Other perhaps more surprising building types that have won include an individual house; last year’s winner Astley Castle. This new development working within the ruins of a 12th century house could be seen as quite a literal interpretation of the requirement to contribute to the “evolution of architecture”.

In 2008 a much larger project became the first residential winner. The Accordia development was held up to house builders as an exemplar scheme. Six years on, in the midst of a housing crisis, you could be forgiven for lamenting its apparently limited impact.

Accordia. Curbed SF, CC BY-NC-SA

Each year the Stirling prize inevitably raises a discussion about architectural values. What is good architecture? This comes alongside a good gossip about what is valued by the establishment and what it is that should be celebrated by this prestigious prize.

This year one aspect of the discussion around the prize is unrelated to the quality of the architecture: gender. Half of the shortlisted practices have women partners. This entirely unremarkable figure becomes significant when you consider that female architects make up only 22% of the profession. There is also evidence from various bodies that women face a lack of respect in the industry and a pay discrepancy of up to 25%.

Leading figures in the industry repeatedly cite a lack of role models as a problem so it’s valuable to see women as leading figures in many of these shortlisted practices. And in a sense, the greater involvement of women at this level is as important in “contributing to the evolution of architecture” as the designs themselves.

But who should win? Personally, I’m gunning for The Everyman Theatre by Haworth Tompkins, but I am perhaps slightly biased, writing as I am from Liverpool. The theatre is an incredible space. The materiality is robust but sensitive; built in the position of the original Everyman, it is in part constructed of bricks from the site.

This recycled approach highlights a problem with the Birmingham Library by Mecanoo, also shortlisted. This new building is highly celebrated, but no more than the brutalist library it replaces is in different circles. There is controversy around the older building which is now facing demolition in spite of a campaign save it. How an architect is to consider the building vacated by their client is a difficult question, and it illustrates how complex architecture is as a discipline.

Something for Everyman. Radarsmum67, CC BY

Hopefully there will always be a healthy debate around the prestigious prize but it is important also to place it in the wider context, in terms of how much influence the prize actually has. Although the award ceremony is no longer broadcast on Channel 4, the prize is covered by the mainstream media and appears to be recognised as a culturally significant event.

In spite of this, it is not clear how the values demanded by the prize have a trickle down effect to architecture more generally.

Six years on from Accordia winning the Stirling prize, we are still in a housing crisis, not only characterised by under supply but also poor quality. Alison Brooks, Stirling Prize winner and nominee, recently expressed frustration at house builders reluctance to apply her ideas and improve quality.

The range of projects celebrated since 1996 do suggest that the judges are concerned with celebrating the best of quality across client sectors and architectural approaches.

But without a knock on impact for the quality of everyday architecture then the importance of the prize will always be limited. The big question for the profession is how to get clients to value the architectural quality, in its many different shades, that is recognised by the prize every year. Only by doing this would the Stirling prize and its winners really contribute to the “evolution of architecture”.