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July 18 2008

Stirling Prize Update

Well, don’t say I didn’t tell you. Two weeks on from my analysis of the Stirling Prize contenders and all the reasons why the exemplary Pier Arts Centre in Orkney wouldn’t be allowed onto the shortlist, the RIBA has announced the final six in the running for the award. And guess what? Yes, the three projects I tipped to make the cut are all there - Zaha Hadid’s Nordpark Cable Railway Station in Innsbruck, Bijlmer Station in Amsterdam by Grimshaw Architects and the Civil Justice Centre by Denton Corker Marshall.

So far, so predictable – two European transport projects and a public building reasonably close to this year’s host city plus three others with not a cat’s chance in hell of winning but there to make up the numbers (for the record, Allies and Morrison’s revamp of the Royal Festival Hall, Alford Hall Monaghan & Morris’ Westminster Academy at the Naim Dangoor Centre in London and the Accordia Housing project in Cambridge by a trio of practices – Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, Alison Brooks Architects and Maccreanor Lavington).

And how many of the shortlisted practices don’t have a London base? Now come on, don’t be silly. A few more years of this metro-centric nonsense and perhaps we’ll begin to realise just how much of an aberration the award to the Scottish Parliament really was. Certainly, I wouldn’t put my shirt on any future non-London building by non-London architects ever winning the Stirling Prize.

What Price a Prize?

Apologies for continuing on the subject of awards and double apologies for returning to one of last week’s stories, but a letter in the Scotsman questioning how Richard Murphy could possibly presume that, once complete, his proposed house in Edinburgh’s Hart Street would receive architectural plaudits shows just how naïve the public is about the predictability of professional approbation.

Let’s face it, awards dinners have long since replaced annual conferences as the most important money-spinning events in the calendar of the construction industry’s many professional bodies. Indeed, it is a rare organisation that doesn’t nowadays have its own awards scheme, so by spreading your net widely and applying often enough, you too can have an award-winning building.

It doesn’t actually matter what the award is for (I once came across architects whose project had received a prize for its plasterwork, thereby enabling them to claim ‘award-winning’ status), the important thing is to be able to add it to the list of practice achievements. This may seem a bit cynical, but the sheer preponderance of awards schemes out there means that it’s now almost possible to spend the entire year (and a large proportion of fee income) submitting entries and attending awards dinners with more than a fair chance of securing a prize for your project. But are the baubles out there of equivalent value?

Given the number it gives out each year, is an RIBA Award for example more important than one from the RICS, and is a Stirling Prize less or more important then a Pritzker? At a more prosaic level, does the presence of Kevin McCloud at the award ceremony confer added status to the award or is it just a way of ensuring we all get a TV dinner?

More seriously, when almost every award scheme has its own ‘Project of the Year’ selected from a myriad of categories (best conservation/regeneration/community benefit etc.) the whole notion of rewarding ‘excellence’ in design and construction is in danger of becoming debased since it is no longer possible to understand why one building is deemed better than another. Perhaps what we now need is an awards’ league table to separate the wheat from the chaff and help the wider public understand which are the more important prizes on offer when construction industry organisations choose to reward their own.

Stadia: Now you see them, now you don’t

Back to the subject of things you wouldn’t put money on, plans to build a new £53m community stadium in Aberdeen by 2012 look decidedly shaky, despite Faber Maunsell being commissioned this week to carry out environmental impact studies on two possible development sites. The funding partners are Aberdeen Football Club (chaired by one of Scotland’s largest volume housebuilders, an industry not exactly awash with spare cash at the moment) and our old friend, the to-all-intents-and-purposes bankrupt Aberdeen City Council. If only the laughable Section 75 Agreement on Trumpton (see 4 July Wrap) could be altered to ensure the eponymous developer fronted up the money for some real community benefit.

Not that Aberdeen City Council is alone when it comes to amateur land deals. Its City of Edinburgh colleague still thinks it can raise £17m from selling off land at Meadowbank Stadium for – yes, you guessed it – housing development – in order to secure the money to create replacement, but considerably smaller, community sports facilities. Given the precipitous descent in housing land values recently, the proceeds resulting from any such sale should be enough to fund a couple of changing rooms.

And at the other end of the capital, still no word whatsoever on Heart of Midlothian’s plans to turn its Gorgie stadium into a hotel and housing complex with football pitch attached (see Wrap 20 June). Quelle surprise - the project funding – as with the Meadowbank redevelopment – was always umbilically-linked to the seemingly ever-rising rising property prices in the capital, so any holding of breath on this one is for serious divers and submariners only.

Thorny Subject

Still in Edinburgh, Planning Committee member, Councillor Cameron Rose, has taken it upon himself to expose the architectural and urban design credentials that made him an obvious choice for the job. The retired police inspector feels a “legislative look” at Historic Scotland’s listing policy should be taken, a viewpoint formed from his bewilderment that a building such as the Royal Commonwealth Pool by RMJM could possibly merit it’s A-listed status.

Showing a commendable appreciation of 1960’s architecture, Councillor Rose feels that “it’s debatable whether it has historic significance”. His real beef, however, is with a listing process that allowed two C category buildings to impede the Council’s eagerness to appease the developer of the Caltongate site next to its new headquarters. As with so many of his colleagues, he is happy to repeat the public relations rhetoric that the proposed project is “creating a new living community” in the heart of the Old Town, encouraging the thought that perhaps it is the city’s Planning Committee itself that merits a legislative look at some of its recent decisions.

Word of the Week

Pharology: the study of lighthouses and signal lights; those who study or are enthused by lighthouses are apparently known as pharologists. This little known fact had, I suspect, escaped most of us until it was discovered that the Princess Royal, in her guise as patron of the Northern Lighthouse Board, has been quietly bagging Scotland’s lighthouses and has now visited more than 80 of the 209 that pepper the nation’s coastline and islands.

What appears to be a fairly solitary hobby (can there be any professional pharologists out there?) is certainly less popular here than the Munro-bragging (sic) indulged in by genuine anoraks, but other countries (east coast USA and Canada spring to mind) have long since recognised the architectural qualities and consequential tourism value of their signal lights. The inaccessibility of Scotland’s rugged coastline makes any similar notion here unlikely, so for the moment the Princess Royal can be assured of reasonable solitude in which to pursue her interest. At least – unlike her elder brother – she doesn’t hector the rest of us about the preservation of her favourite building type.

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