The Stirling Prize arrives

Words:
Hugh Pearman

Our searches in the archives reach the 1990s and the brouhaha around the new Stirling Prize

The Humanities Reading room at Sandy Wilson’s British Library when brand new.
The Humanities Reading room at Sandy Wilson’s British Library when brand new. Credit: John Donat RIBA Collections

‘Stephen Hodder’s receipt of the £20,000 Stirling Prize should come as no surprise,’ wrote RIBAJ editor John Welsh in December 1996. ‘Today’s adventurous building is more likely to come from an office in Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow or Edinburgh than the once comfortable salons of London.’

The launch of the Stirling Prize that year was a game-changer for the RIBA. It had watched with concern as rival architecture awards had sprung up to challenge its own system, not least the Royal Fine Art Commission’s ‘Building of the Year’ award. As architecture critic at The Sunday Times I’d been involved in the RFAC award which we sponsored, but there was no cash prize. I persuaded the paper to switch the sponsorship to the new prize, the money to go to the winner. 

Our group setting this up included Jane Priestman, then head of the RIBA awards panel, and press officers Chris Palmer and Sarah Gaventa. President Owen Luder gave it his blessing. We needed a good name – something like the Turner Prize for contemporary art, which I’d been watching on TV. Stirling? The name had a good ring to it, like sterling silver. 

Jim had never stood still, was constantly reinventing his architecture. He had won all three global architecture accolades: the RIBA Royal Gold Medal, the Pritzker Prize, and the Praemium Imperiale. He had unexpectedly died in 1992, aged only 66. The new prize for the best new building would keep his name current. The Stirling family and Jim’s surviving practice partner Michael Wilford kindly agreed. So the new top architecture prize was born, at journalistic rather than institutional speed. 

As Wilford received the Prize, he brandished the trophy and declared: ‘This is for Jim!’

The controversy that attends all such awards soon appeared. The second year, the Prize was won by Stirling Wilford’s Music School in Stuttgart: the smart money had been on Alsop & Lyall’s ‘Grand Bleu’ regional government building in Marseilles. As Wilford received the Prize, he brandished the trophy and declared: ‘This is for Jim!’ 

In the early years of the Stirling Prize the judges occasionally ‘called in’ buildings of merit that had been overlooked in the lower tiers of the awards system. None was more egregious than in 1998, when Colin ‘Sandy’ St John Wilson’s British Library was inexplicably excluded. So the Stirling judges – me among them, with Marco Goldschmied in the chair – summoned it onto the shortlist. 

Sandy Wilson photographed in his British Library as it neared completion.
Sandy Wilson photographed in his British Library as it neared completion. Credit: John Donat RIBA Collections

That year the winner was Foster’s air museum at Duxford in Cambridge. Writing in the RIBAJ, Kester Rattenbury was scathing. ‘The Stirling judges…rejected the daft notion that the British Library should not be on the shortlist because some parochial gnomes considered it ineligible for a civic and community award,’ she wrote. ‘But they didn’t reject the notion firmly enough to let the library actually win, thus fixing the prize (a la Booker) as the great vehicle for promoting everyone’s second choice.’ (Almost true – in fact that year it was a fine house by Rick Mather that was pipped at the post).

Kester was right when she remarked that it was its unfashionability, after 37 years in the making, that denied the British Library the Stirling, and right when she described it as ‘a magnificently detailed piece of great civic architecture.’ Today it is Grade I listed.

Hurrah for the RIBAJ, unafraid to take a hard look at the RIBA’s top prize! This was architecture’s crit culture working as it should. In the long run, it’s always better to be right than to be expedient.