How can you possibly assess a railway station against a private house, asks Ben Flatman

Ben Flatman

Ben Flatman

The Stirling is British architecture’s “best picture” award, but the organisers need to celebrate the full diversity of what architects do.

When the stars file down the red carpet for the 92nd Academy Awards ceremony in Hollywood in February they will be there to celebrate and promote the rich diversity of the (mainly) US film industry. Part of that celebration is about recognising that not all films are the same, and some types deserve special recognition.

By handing out gongs for animated picture, best documentary and various technical categories, the Oscars big up the fact that their industry isn’t about one homogenised product but, at its best, a mix of big and small projects, and talented teams striving for excellence in their specialised fields.

The recent additions of the Stephen Lawrence and Neave Brown Awards have begun to open things up in the RIBA awards field, but there remains a fundamental absurdity underlying the Stirling itself.

How does pitting Cork House against a major transport interchange like London Bridge serve to celebrate the best of British architecture? And how are the judges, let alone the public, supposed to assess the relative merits of such radically different buildings?

Aside from the general opaqueness of what it is the judges are assessing, there’s also the usual suspicion (as with all such awards) that professional grudges are being pursued and strategic backs scratched. The result has too often been incoherent shortlists and predictably perverse winners.

Hastings Pier seemed to win in 2017 for no other reason than it was public spirited and partly funded by crowdsourcing (although it went into administration the same year it won and was quickly privatised). The similarly decent but rather unexceptional Burntwood School is assumed to have won in 2015 essentially because it was a state school. The political point being made about the demise of Building Schools for the Future may have been justified but, as with this year’s winner, Goldsmith Street, the quality of the architecture almost seemed a secondary consideration.

To escape its current status as a rather bewildering and pointless beauty parade, ending with a damp squib of a political statement, the Stirling and wider RIBA awards system needs to move towards a recognition of the different scales and typologies at play in architecture.

Currently the regional and national awards mimic the Stirling by just gathering together a lot of very good, but poorly curated buildings in a series of bewildering lists. Curious to browse through on the internet but hardly enlightening.

Instead of the current meaningless jumble, the national awards should start recognising the best buildings in specific categories, like conservation, housing and transport.

The profession and our wider audience might then begin to be able to gauge the quality of what was being presented against more defined and comprehensible criteria. And the awards might begin to actually mean something.

So, while the whole process could still end with a single, absurd best picture accolade, the route there would provide a more revealing and valuable snapshot of what’s happening in British architecture in all its multiplicity.

Plus, there’d be a lot more prizes along the way.

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