A Misstep In The Evolution Of Architecture

A Misstep In The Evolution Of Architecture, argues Alex Wolf (@AlexinLeeds), about the winner of the 2012 Stirling Prize…

The Stirling Prize, according to RIBA who award it, aims to be the Booker prize for architecture. To be eligible the building must be in the UK or EU and the architect’s head office must also be in the UK. It’s awarded to ‘the architects of the building that has made the greatest contribution to the evolution of architecture over the past year’.

This might sound a little familiar as the Stirling Prize announcement was televised from 2002-2011 and you may have caught a glimpse of Kevin McCloud bouncing around in high glee and cutting to videos of the buildings shortlisted.

I’ve been interested in architecture since my teens but am in that odd position – I have no interest in becoming an architect or studying the nuts and bolts of it as a trade but I care and am enthusiastic about good, innovative architecture. I see my architecture enthusiasm in the same light as those who prefer English Literature to English Language as a subject.

Anyway, all of this is preamble to telling you that last night the wrong building won the 2012 Stirling Prize and I am angry about it. You should be too.

You see, this year’s shortlist contained:

– The Hepworth, Wakefield
I know you’ve all heard of this building

– The Lyric Theatre in Belfast
A beautiful new theatre that suits the place and users well

– Maggie’s Centre, Glasgow
These centres are designed for cancer patients and focus on calm, soothing, gentle buildings. The Glasgow centre is a great example.

– New Court, London
The new offices of Rothschild bank. Think chrome, glass and testosterone.

– Olympic Stadium, London
Designed carefully so that the structure could still remain useful after the Games, every element can be removed and reconfigured.

– Sainsbury Laboratory, Cambridge
A sustainable building where the internal structure can be re-arranged since the way scientists work in the future will change. The lab will be used for botanical research.

The bookies’ favourite was the Olympic Stadium since the golden glow of the summer games was still burning bright when the shortlist was announced and many critics see it as iconic. The public’s favourite – even in Manchester where a poll was held – was The Hepworth. An unusual sculpture gallery in a unique setting ,it captured the imagination with its instantly recognisable outline.

The winner was the Sainsbury Laboratory.

At first I was baffled. I was cheering for the Lyric in Belfast as it happens, it’s an amazing theatre with a great future ahead of it that will make a massive impact on punters and performers alike, but I expected it to lose to Hepworth or the Olympic stadium. Hearing the first syllables of ‘Sainsb…’ took me a second or two to process.

Then the frustration kicked in. Setting aside personal preferences of which is prettier, this building winning sends out entirely the wrong messages.

The laboratory is a very expensive, exclusive office in the middle of a gated, entry charging botanical garden. It has a public cafe downstairs but essentially this is a building that exists as a bubble to keep the scientists inside secure from interaction with the real world.

In its lifetime mere hundreds of well educated, well heeled chaps will see the inside of the research space and work in there. They will look out over the beautifully managed and entirely artificial grounds in a hideous representation of the Them and Us gulf between scientists and the great unwashed. That isn’t a great contribution to the evolution of architecture.

While most of us will never see the inside of a cancer centre in suburbian Glasgow or the plush headquarters of a London bank, they have to play nicely with their neighbours. They exist in a public landscape and have visibility in a way the laboratory just doesn’t.

As for the theatre, stadium and art gallery, whether you like The Hepworth’s bunker-like frontage, appreciate how special a new theatre being built is or are still cheering Team GB in your dreams, they have public visibility and impact. Thousands have seen them, thousands and thousands more will visit them, use them, respond to them and talk about them. They are public buildings in every sense of the word.

They represent a Britain where the bubble includes everyone and they inspire and will go on inspiring. They didn’t win. I, for one, think that’s worth being angry about.

– Alex Wolf can more usually be found talking about books at Alex in Leeds


  1. If the prize aims to reward “the evolution of architecture” and the Sainsbury Laboratory is judged to have done that, I think your problem is more with the prize than with the building that won it. You may wish that there was a prize for a building that makes a great contribution to public life, but this is not it.

    As for your description of scientists as “well heeled chaps” and “Them” as opposed to “Us”, do you know any research scientists? I’ll gloss over the casual sexism and get to the implied wealth of said researchers; a quick glance at the Sainsbury Laboratory website suggests most of them will be postgraduate/postdoctoral students, whilst there is also an advert for a technician on the oh-so-well-heeled salary of £23,811-£26,779 pa. If you were talking about city traders or hedge fund managers, you might have a point, but when was the last time a reasearcher lorded it over anyone? The Sainsbury Laboratory studies plants, essentially. It’s not glamorous or elitist and it might help fend off an approaching food crisis; hardly the ivory tower you make it out to be.

    Oh, and entry to the garden is free for students of the university, or do they count as “Them” as well?

  2. Like most awards who should win is always subjective as Different people have slightly different criteria in how they judge it.

    Personally I wanted The Hepworth to win. Although Architecturally I think it is a great building it was mainly due to the fact that I live in Wakefield that it got my vote!

    It would be good if all interesting buildings could be accessed by everyone but sometimes this is not practical. This is often for security reasons or that it is private property, you wouldn’t want anyone just walking round your own house no matter how well designed it was. It does not stop them being great architecture just that a smaller percentage of people see them.

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