St(e)rling Prize

With the announcement that Foster + Partners’ £1.3bn Bloomberg office building was crowned the UK’s best building for 2018, a divisive chasm opened within architecture circles. After getting over the eye-watering cost, questions about how this really represents the wider profession, and whether a project like this is relatable for the vast majority of practices in current times, was asked by many.[br]

All the buildings on the shortlist were backed by hefty sums to meet their clients’ ambitions, but it was Bloomberg that grabbed the headlines. It’s fair to say that the decision was divisive, with the reaction from the wider profession varied.[Historically the prize was awarded to the building that had made the greatest contribution to the evolution of architecture in the past year, and Rob Wilson writes in the AJ, ‘the architecture does, of course, reflect the times…’ With this statement in mind, you could be forgiven for thinking that the good times are back, the construction profession is at an all-time high, with an abundance of projects being built up and down the country.[The reality is very different. The UK’s housing deficit continues to grow at an alarming rate, with no clear plan of action in effect. The most recent Glenigan construction index figures (which measures new starts on site) show an overall fall of 21% across all sectors, and the forecast for 2018 & 2019 is for a further 10% decline. Clearly, all is not rosy.[br]

If these are just some of the issues facing the profession, what then can the Stirling prize shortlist teach us? And in respect of the Bloomberg, a building that is supposed to contribute significantly to the evolution of architecture in the UK – what statement does it make about the future direction of the profession?[Perhaps most notable was the absence of any housing project on the shortlist. Are architects unable to spearhead the challenge of the UK’s housing crisis? In regards to Bloomberg, clearly the technological innovations are exemplary. However, a reluctance to share these innovations (and the building’s true environmental performance data) with the wider profession, brings into question just how much of this will trickle down.[br]

It is also hard to see how much of this is scalable for smaller projects with much tighter budgets. Working in a small practice, I have seen first-hand how many projects get both priced out of, and hurried through any kind of innovation, particularly when budgets are tight and time lines are short. Through celebrating these kinds of, ‘money no object’ projects, are we really just turning our backs on the issues at hand, and telling the public that only the biggest budgets result in the best architecture? As Jeremy Young says, it is ‘sending a strangely off-beat note about the profession and its priorities in this time of increasing inequality.’.[br]

Recent trends within the profession appeared to show a shift in agenda towards a more socially engaged architecture. Only last year, with the win of the crowdfunded Hastings Pier, by dRMM, the message seemed to be: look what can be achieved when the community (and their needs) are placed at the heart of a project, and generosity for all is encouraged. These ideas are certainly translatable to small scale practices, and can be adhered to regardless of budget. This year, however, the message seems to have come full circle.[br]

Photograph by Bor-Ren Hui