The Stirling Prize

The Stirling Prize

The Stirling Prize

Photography by Iwan Baan This year, the famed Stirling Prize has been awarded to the talented Zaha Hadid for the creation of MAXXI, the National Museum of XXI Century Arts in Rome. Announced on 2nd October, the prize was given along with £20,000 in recognition of the building of the year. The prize has a long history of exceptional projects and the museum in Rome is a stunning example of innovation and craft that has been blended into a cultural landscape without overpowering the history and stature that Rome holds as a cultural city. Many worthy winners have come before Hadid’s museum and these works of art have quietly and subtly worked their way into our societies, taking their place in our history’s future. London is now recognisable not just for Buckingham Palace, Big Ben and the Tower Bridge, but also for ‘The Gherkin’, a beacon of contemporary design in the city. We have our visionary architects to thank for that.

Which of our most recent winners (see blow) do you think represents the best examples of visionary design, which is also sympathetic to its’ landscape and will stand the test of time?

Answer, Dickon Hayward:

Watching the televised broadcast of the Stirling Prize with a group of non-architects proved to be an acutely embarrassing experience. As the great and good of the architecture profession were dragged out for their fifteen minutes of fame we were presented with a profession of self-aggrandizing misfits. Lacking both the confident intellectual musings of artists and the rigorous professionalism of accountants, architects came across as the worrying love child of the two. It was a great relief, therefore, when ten minutes into the program I realized everyone had given up watching the program save myself.

The broadcasting of the Stirling Prize was surely a loss leader for Channel 4, some cheap way to justify its culture remit perhaps, and no surprise it flipped this year to the distinctly less watched BBC4. It lingers far below any media awards in terms of glamour and far below the Turner prize in terms of public outrage or celebrity interest. It’s plain turgid- so dull not even Kevin McCloud’s earnest enthusiasm could rustle up more viewers.

When, in the lulls in conversation or before the next bottle was opened someone did pay attention to one of the projects being displayed on the telly, it was usually accompanied by an expression of bemusement and questioning – ‘is that good architecture? But it just looks like so many other buildings I see everyday. .’  ‘Well’, I respond, ‘architecture is not just about the spectacular, often it’s most successful when hardly noticed, when it triggers the everyday subconscious rather then the wow effect of spectacle. . .’ I watch the eyes glaze over in front of me.

Of course, this is the perennial problem with the presentation of architecture; particularly to those outside our close knit circles. Some great architecture can sustain books, exhibitions, films and even TV shows, but other great architecture is so ordinary you hardly look up when you drive by on the bus. When we come to celebrate our profession and show off to the outside world, we are therefore at a dilemma what to show. Should we delight in the stylized and highly individual decadence of Zaha Hadid’s oeuvre, or should we pay tribute to the inner logic and rigueur of DSDHA’s school design ? Or do we ignore the experts and celebrate the architecture that delights others? – the non descript and overlooked majority that comes in on time and on budget and does exactly what it says on the tin.

This is the problem that faces the Stirling Prize each year and has resulted in a history of winners that flips inclusively form the spectacular to the mundane annually. There are those that profess the award should go to the bleeding heart liberals fighting the budgets and bureaucracy, the other half suggest it goes to the Starchitects latest European high budget gallery. However, even comparing the two extremes is unfair to both, let alone contesting them in competition. Fortunately for me, and probably most of the media’s cultural editors, Zaha won and people were spared an explanation of why any of the other contenders was anywhere near as interesting. I was reminded of Mies’s famous desire to be good rather then interesting. A noble cause indeed, but rubbish TV.

Previous Winners:

2010- MAXXI, the National museum of XXI Century Arts in Rome, Zaha Hadid

2009- Maggies Centre in London, Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners

2008- Accordia, Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios/Alison Brooks Architects/Maccreanor Lavington

2007- The Museum of Modern Literature, David Chipperfield Architects

2006- Barajas Airport in Madrid, Richard Rogers Partnership

2005- The Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh, EMBT / RMJM Ltd

2004- 30 St Mary Axe, the “Gherkin”, Foster and Partners

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