Architectural truth can be stranger than fiction

Stirling Prize shortlists are bound to be controversial

14 October 2021 , Paul Finch

There has been a certain amount of disquiet over the selection of this year’s RIBA Stirling Prize shortlist, but then there usually is. In general, I am more interested in the choices of people who have actually visited the buildings and discussed them in detail with other members of the RIBA Awards Group, than snipers who have seen little.

Having served on that body for a decade, and twice been a Stirling Prize judge, I can speak with at least some experience of the seriousness with which the judging processes and decisions are undertaken. I did not experience any discernible London bias – if anything the reverse. It is much tougher to win an RIBA Award for a London building compared with almost any other part of the country.

However, there was one consistent factor which still rather rankles: the question of scale and complexity, particularly in relation to any commercial building. The make-up of the Awards Group, at least when I was involved, tended towards good architects who had not generally undertaken major projects. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they seemed far more critical of big buildings by big practices than small projects by practices of the sort they themselves ran.

The bigger the project, the more difficult the problems are likely to become, which leads to a dilemma: to take a diving competition analogy, do you give the main prize to a simple dive, perfectly executed, or a far more complex dive where the competitor was excellent, but not perfect?
This degree of difficulty factor is one that can be useful when comparing architectural chalk and cheese. For simple jobs, you know that many practices could have done it equally well. But the tougher it gets, the harder it is to think of numerous alternative designers. Like high-performance cars, the greater the pressure, the better the response. This is at least one way of thinking about whether a building should be on the Stirling Prize shortlist, or indeed the winner.

Examples of great projects missing out are legion. The Birmingham Selfridges by Future Systems was a radical rethink of the contemporary department store, beautifully designed and delivered and transforming its rather dull context. It did not make the shortlist, but a relatively modest bit of urbanism in Coventry and a sculptural spire in Dublin did.

It is notoriously the case that architects rarely win the Stirling with their best work – Zaha won with the Rome gallery and a modest Brixton school, but not the ground-breaking VW headquarters. Patrik Schumacher was generous enough to acknowledge the excellence of the Hopkins velodrome on the London Olympics park, thinking it better than ZHA’s aquatic centre. But the velodrome still didn’t win the Stirling.

These thoughts came to mind on a visit last week to building which to my mind should undoubtedly have been a contender this year: the magnificent Tottenham Hotspur football stadium by Populous. This is surely the Beaubourg of stadiums, with animation and transparency an informing idea throughout. From the civilised entrance sequencing, complete with 70m interior ‘wonderwalls’ on the east and west wings, to the engineering brilliance of the roof (by Shlaich Bergermann), this is a building which is as thoroughly thought through as you are likely to find. I declare a very minor interest, inasmuch as I did an informal design review for the architects, Populous, in the early stages of the project. It was promising then and has more than lived up to expectations.

Stadiums are commercial beasts but are community buildings too. Safety, amenity, hospitality and comfort sit alongside the drama and intensity which great design encourages and enables. This example has it all, not least because of the exemplary input and support of the club’s chairman, Daniel Levy.

Even on a night when the crowd was modest (a European game but against an obscure Slovenian side), the atmosphere was impressive, particularly the acoustically managed roar from the home end as Harry Kane scored a hat-trick (final score 5-1).

I was sitting with Tom Jones of Populous, whose project this was, and who is rightly proud of the RIBA National Award the stadium has earned. I think the architects have been hard done by not to have made the Stirling shortlist, but Tom isn’t the moaning type.

Of course if it had made it, the question is which project might have been excluded. I decline to say since I haven’t seen most of the rest of the list, but I have my suspicions!

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