The first Stirling Prize ceremony for years without live national television cameras was a thoroughly pleasant affair for everyone except – as always – those architects and their fellow consultants and clients shortlisted for the various awards, stomachs knotted with tension, who came away empty-handed. No use telling them the self-evident truth that to get that far in this incredibly thorough awards process is in itself an important accolade.
Although the winner was unexpected, given the polls leading up to the Prize, this was not one of those years when you felt a great injustice had been done (particularly since we’d earmarked it as the ‘standout building’ in our analysis of the shortlist, which was a strong one). The Sainsbury Laboratory at Cambridge University may have enjoyed an enviable budget per square metre compared to some of its rivals, but the money was spent on fundamentals, not fripperies. Architects Alan Stanton and Paul Williams command great respect and affection among their peers. Generally shunning the limelight, approachable but never self-promoting, they just get on with doing very good work in the classic modernist (and in this case, perhaps also modern classical) tradition. This year has been an annus mirabilis for them, with two other important RIBA award-winning buildings plus the completion of the Eton Manor sports complex, part of the 2012 Olympic legacy.
So when they joined the stage in Manchester with what seemed like half of Cambridge and the Sainsbury family, their surprise and delight were reciprocated by the audience. Rather like Ted Cullinan receiving the Royal Gold Medal a few years back, this was the profession honouring its own finest general practitioners. Stanton Williams are not ‘starchitects’, any more than their shortlisted colleagues O’Donnell + Tuomey are. They are just very good. Maybe the absence of sensation-seeking TV cameras was a good thing.