The Stirling Prize has elicited more than its usual amount of brouhaha, or perhaps I've just been paying more attention this time. Twitter doesn’t help, of course, turning even watching the prize giving at home into some kind of media event. The programme’s every detail, (Tom Dyckhoff’s costume changes, the awkward interviews with the judges and Zaha Hadid’s truly remarkable outfit) were all subject to an instant barrage of enthusiastic opinion.
Su Butcher at Just Practicing was particularly quick on the draw, posting a humble practicioner’s critique of all the self-congratulatory hoopla and asking the leading question: “What do you think of the Stirling Prize?” To which most people replied, predictably enough, that it was a load of pretentious nonsense. Most wondered too why the prize is awarded exclusively to the architect, when so many other people contribute to the construction process.
Leaving aside the fact that the Stirling Prize is a prize specifically for architects, it’s not a bad point. The prize is, after all, for the best building of the year. Architecture is a profession with a very odd relationship to its end product, which it views simultaneously as both the exclusive outcome of the architect’s will and somebody else’s problem if anything goes wrong.
Partly this has something to do with the way architecture is produced. While fine art is still nominally made by the artist (although this is, of course, not always the case), architecture is the product of many hands, none of which, physically speaking, belong to the architect. Architects make drawings, after all, not buildings. Even allowing for the incorporation of ready-mades and industrialised processes into contemporary art, it’s difficult to think of another artform where the author is so removed from the result.
There is an enormous gap between the process of designing and the physical reality of building. Architects get so used to equating drawings and models with buildings – despite the vast scale, material and factual differences – that they assume an equivalence between them. Perhaps it is this sense of equivalence that allows them to gloss over the work done by other consultants and contractors and claim sole authorship. This equivalence affects architectural education in particular, where buildings and images are discussed as if they are literally interchangeable.
Architecture involves projection, both literally and metaphorically. When architects design they are involved in an active process of imagining buildings and objects that don’t, as yet, exist. But the mediation of architecture continues to conflate image and physical reality. The accusation that architects are somehow aloof or arrogant stems, I think, from this sense of removal, the fact that they simply don’t get their hands dirty and conceive of architecture from the rarified realm of their ivory tower.
All of which is ironic to say the least given the decreasing influence architects have in the construction industry. The last fifteen years may have witnessed a construction boom but it also saw a steady slide in influence of the general practicing architect. I have ranted before about this in connection with the Carbuncle Cup – the anti-Stirling Prize if you like – and suggested that the glamour and fuss surrounding the event seems to grow in inverse proportion to the number of decent buildings completed in general.
Perhaps this explains the choice of winner too. Zaha Hadid’s Maxxi is unmistakably a big work of architecture, at least in the sense that architects conceive it. It is large, culturally important, bold, structurally audacious and undeniably the singular result of its author’s vision*; a Gesamtkunstwerk that looks better minus the addition of any kunst. Maxxi represents the good ship architecture sailing serenely through a sea of PFI detritus. Perhaps, in the end, the judges considered a reaffirmation of the eternal values of architecture more important than the localised political point of celebrating new school buildings.
This is debatable, not because Zaha’s building isn’t amazing, but because the coalition government couldn’t have done more since it came to power to kick the construction industry well and truly in the nuts. For an industry largely surviving on publicly funded projects, cuts in grants for affordable housing plus the binning of BSF have had devastating results.
In Saturday’s Guardian, Polly Toynbee criticised professional bodies in general for staying silent on the issue of cuts. While the unions take the rap from the right wing press for opposing them, professional bodies like the RIBA seemingly have nothing to say, despite the impact on its members. Instead, the RIBA organises conferences like the recent Does Beauty Matter at which key note speaker John Gummer made predictably philistine remarks about Brutalism and revelled in the privilege of his experiences with classical architecture. It’s hard, in the current climate, to take this kind of thing with good grace.
Ultimately, the Stirling Prize is not entirely reducible to economic/political arguments, although it is inevitably tied up with them. There are clearly other criteria for judging works of architecture than how well, or badly, they reflect the times. But shying away from any kind of political context is something that architects and the RIBA do far too much of. Perhaps as a result of this, Maxxi seems thoroughly out of time, a grand piece of prog rock in the post punk landscape of public spending cuts.
* This leaves aside the interesting question of Patrick Shumacher’s contribution, an issue highlighted awkwardly by his slightly unexplained presence on the stage during Hadid’s acceptance speech. Clearly, it would be too complex to admit that even architectural geniuses have help.