The Stirling prize is the architecture world’s annual opportunity for backslapping and self congratulation over what vulgar monstrosities they’ve managed to con people into building over the past year. With that in mind, 2015’s finalists are everything you’d expect them to be.
Hosted by the Royal Institute of British Architects and named for the deceased post-modernist celebrity architect James Stirling, the awards claim to celebrate “exceptional” buildings and “architectural excellence in the UK”. Despite that, the entrants are on a fundamental level indistinguishable to the short-listers of parallel award the Carbuncle Cup, given to “the ugliest building in the United Kingdom completed in the last 12 months”.
Intended to poke fun at the pompous Stirling Prize, the cup is named for a remark made by the Prince of Wales at an architecture awards dinner in 1984 about a proposed modernist extension to the National Gallery, a design he called a “monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend”. The term stuck, the design was rejected, and ugly modern buildings have been thought of as ‘carbuncles’ ever since.
These two competing prizes are not simply a case of catty architects having a go at each other. While the Stirling prize is self-nominated, and judged by a panel of ‘experts’, the Carbuncle Cup is entirely nominated by public vote – a democratic expression of revulsion at contemporary architecture.
It is interesting that over 30 years later the designer of that original carbuncle, the now ennobled yuppie architect Lord Rogers is again a finalist for the Stirling Prize for a building that could conceivably win either award. Again employing his trademark motif of designs that present buildings as inside out, his Neo Bankside development has already made a significant achievement in receiving a less than positive write up from the ordinary modernist lickspittles at the Independent. The newspaper’s roundup derided the ‘Meccano-Brio’ like buildings as “blingside … [a] steroidally expressed, brightly coloured structure and exoskeleton”.
Another design entry, the University of Greenwich’s new Stockwell Street Building does not offend primarily with its identikit modernist conformity of design, but rather its arrogant placement in the Greenwich UNESCO World Heritage Site, doorstepping Wren’s Old Naval College and a fine Hawksmoor church. Most depressingly of all, it will house the former university architecture department, and generations of young architects will learn their trade as they are steeped in polished concrete and sheet glass.
Unfortunately, the least imaginative design is to be inflicted upon children. The Burntwood school’s indented, puckered windows and oppressive grey concrete are highly redolent of the work of unloved 20th century architect Richard Seifert, the man who contrived to do as much damage as he could possibly manage to post-war London. A pioneer of using pre-cast concrete blocks in construction, Seifert demolished fine Victorian buildings to replace them with his own flawed idea of how cities should work.
His vision of communities without streets and dominated by vast concrete towers, one shared by crypto-fascist postwar celebrity architect Le Corbusier, has now been so thoroughly discredited even Glasgow is now considering reinstating its Victorian street pattern which was swept away by 1960’s development. Yet the style and philosophy of 20th century architecture lives on in the unimaginative, pastiche designs of contemporary celebrity architects – and is celebrated by the incestuous design community through the Stirling Prize.
The winner of the RIBA Stirling Prize 2015 will be announced in October.
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