After 25 years of the RIBA’s top prize, what has it done for us? Tony Chapman has an emphatic answer
We knew the RIBA Stirling Prize was really working when prime minister Tony Blair said in 2000 during the first televised Stirling: ‘There was a time when people thought that all modern architecture was rubbish and basically the only building that was good was the one you saw in history books. Now, we should be really proud of our heritage – it’s fantastic – but what’s happening now is that we’re getting great new buildings.’ The RIBA had invited him to present the fifth edition of the prize and he’d agreed, but something of greater importance came up. So he sent a video instead in which he continued: ‘I think there’s a whole different type of agenda around architecture and design in public policy terms that would have been considered eccentric five or six years ago.’
In those five years public attitudes to modern architecture had indeed changed. We had emerged from the Carolingian Dark Ages in which architecture dared not speak its name and only princes were entitled to opine on the subject. TV had been an important part of that change. We’d gone from Changing Rooms to Grand Designs. Architecture was being taken seriously and the Stirling Prize, Grand Designs and Cool Britannia formed a powerful triumvirate in effecting that.
But in this climate architecture itself was changing too. No longer did buildings have to be diffident; the question was no longer whether Prince Charles would like it but whether it would work, would stimulate people, would improve their lives. The Stirling Prize didn’t make that change on its own but it did endorse it, and it set ever higher standards for architects and their clients.
There was a strong sign we’d begun to get it right in 1999, when the judges dared give the prize to Future Systems’ Lord’s Media Centre and not the River and Rowing Museum (David Chipperfield’s turn would come). And now Peckham Library – ‘f*ck the past’, Will Alsop was in fact bellowing at the cameras as he accepted the prize. This was modernism without the capital M. The prize was embracing the future, not the past.
Awards such as the Stirling Prize are about getting people to love architecture, that’s half their point at least. And they make us care about the way things look and the way they’re made. They make the world a better place – that’s what Stirling has done for us.
Tony Chapman was RIBA head of awards, 1996-2016