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As seen on TV

Steve Parnell and Nathan Breeze

TV and the Stirling Prize have parted company but better public awareness is the partnership’s legacy

In October 2005, the TV listings for the coveted primetime Saturday night slot showed two competition shows go head to head. A Channel 4 show celebrating the year’s best building went up against ITV’s flagship singing contest, The X Factor. For those involved in founding the RIBA Stirling Prize, such exposure must have exceeded their highest hopes in their bid to raise the profile of architecture in Britain.

The Stirling Prize was intended to do for architecture what the Booker and Turner prizes had done for literature and art: promote it to a wider audience

The Stirling Prize was intended to do for architecture what the Booker and Turner prizes had done for literature and art; namely to promote it to a wider audience. Named after the late British architect James Stirling, the prize was launched in 1996 and is awarded annually to the building that ‘has made the most significant contribution to the evolution of architecture in the past year’ by an RIBA-registered architect.

In its inaugural year this was deemed to be Salford University’s Centenary Building by Stephen Hodder. While the result was greeted favourably by those who feared the award would be dominated by more established names, there was an acknowledged lack of high quality projects emerging in Britain at the end of John Major’s Conservative government in an industry still recovering from the early 1990s recession. As a result the following year allowed projects completed anywhere in Europe to be shortlisted.

In the early years the organisers sought to raise the mainstream profile of the award in various ways. The judging panel, typically comprising the RIBA president, the previous year’s winner and a journalist from the media sponsor, was joined by a high profile ‘lay’ person such as Stella McCartney or Tracey Emin. In the run up to the awards ceremony, the RIBA invited William Hill to offer odds on the shortlisted buildings while an exhibition at Portland Place presented all the category award winners that formed the long-list.

The ceremony aimed to be a star-studded event. Special guests from the Labour government included culture secretary Chris Smith and Peter Mandleson

The ceremony itself aimed to be a star- studded event with exclusive guests from the construction industry and beyond. Special guests from the Labour government were invited, such as culture secretary Chris Smith (1997) and trade and industry secretary Peter Mandleson (1998), the latter a late stand-in for Prime Minister Tony Blair. Since its first three years at Portland Place the ceremony has been hosted at various venues, often designed by ­architects shortlisted for the prize itself. 

Television was always the key to boosting the Prize’s mainstream appeal. This idea drew mixed reactions from the architectural community who feared it would prioritise PR friendly style over substance. Nevertheless, it was agreed that the benefits outweighed the negatives. In 2000 the RIBA managed to convince Channel 4 that architecture, buoyed by some high profile lottery projects, had the growing popularity to make the show a success. Furthermore it argued that architecture could be as controversial as the Booker and the Turner, a claim supported by Will Alsop’s expletive-ridden acceptance speech after his Peckham Library was announced as winner. Approximately one million viewers watched the first show and it became an annual event for the channel.

The following year saw the battle of the large millennium projects with Wilkinson Eyre’s Magna Centre narrowly defeating the bookies favourite, Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners’ Eden Project. Perhaps the most critically acclaimed project of the year, conversion of the Bankside Power station to the Tate Modern, was not shortlisted. Failing to register with the RIBA in time, Herzog & de Meuron was not eligible to enter. It did taste victory, however, with the Laban Dance Centre in 2003.

Following the success of Grand Designs, Kevin McCloud took over presenting the awards ceremony from Waldemar Januszczak in 2004. Talkback Productions’ revamped show employed McCloud’s accessible style, focusing on the story behind each of the shortlisted projects. In addition, the ceremony was broadcast live for the first time. This shift was seen as evidence of architecture’s confirmed mainstream appeal, further supported by the 2004 winner, Foster and Partners’ Swiss Re building. Unlike any other winner of the prize before or since, the ‘gherkin’ captured both the public’s and the media’s imagination and was the unanimous choice of the judges. ‘Iconic’ thus became the buzzword inside and outside architectural circles. 

In contrast, Chipperfield’s Museum of Modern Literature demonstrated restrained elegance and Accordia became the first housing project to not only make the shortlist, but to win the Stirling Prize. By 2009 the global economic crisis was a reality. After fears that the prize money would have to be withdrawn, a record low number of viewers watched Richard Rogers win his second Stirling Prize for another low-key project, the Maggie’s Centre. Channel 4 subsequently decided to stop broadcasting the awards and the ceremony instead moved to become a special feature of The Culture Show on BBC2. Despite high profile back-to-back wins for Zaha Hadid in the following two years, ratings continued to drop in a less desirable time slot. In 2012 the awards ceremony ceased to be televised.

It is perhaps no surprise that the media profile of the Stirling Prize over the past 17 years reflects the latest economic cycle of the construction industry. As well as the Millennium projects, the artificial boom of the New Labour government offered affordable financing of projects large and small. Meanwhile programmes such as Talkback Productions’ own Property Ladder and Grand Designs encouraged the public’s skirmish with property and, arguably, interest in architecture. From the media-friendly affair with ‘iconic starchitecture’ to regular controversy such as this year’s revived Park Hill, depicted as a ‘concrete monstrosity’, the prize has given the media something architectural to focus on.

The current separation of the prize from television – though not the BBC website – is an opportunity for the award to re-establish its values. During its founding, Mary Stirling was adamant that it should be used to help the younger generation of architects as her late husband had struggled for recognition early on. Refreshingly, this year’s shortlist is made up of less established names not previously nominated for the prize. 

Where are the winners built?

Germany: 2
Italy: 1
Spain: 1
Scotland: 1
Cambridgeshire: 3
Other English regions: 3
London: 6
Wales: 0

Figures to 2012

Nathan Breeze is a fifth year M.Arch architecture student at the Bartlett, writing a dissertation on the Stirling Prize and mainstream media

Steve Parnell is an architect, critic, and lecturer in architecture at the University of Nottingham