Stirling Prize 2019: A momentous moment for architecture and housing

Photograph: Tim Crocker / RIBA

Professor Flora Samuel on why this year’s Stirling Prize celebrates the real skill of architects and demonstrates the valuable contribution that they can make to homes and communities. 

Monday’s decision to award the Stirling Prize, the Royal Institute of British Architects most prestigious award, to Goldsmith Street in Norwich designed by architects Mikhail Riches working with Cathy Hawley was a momentous moment for architecture and for housing more widely. It celebrates the real skill of architects, those delicate design moves that can make such a difference not only to the way we people feel about a place as well as its long term value.

Not only is Goldsmith Street a subtle take on that most flexible of typologies, the traditional terrace street designed to the most stringent Passivhaus environmental standards it is also a shining symbol of what is possible when local authorities take on the development of their homes into their own hands, a subject that I tackled in the CaCHE paper, Promoting design value in public rented housing, an English perspective.

Despite the high profile of the Stirling Prize, its judging criteria has been obscure – the building that has contributed most to the architecture over the past year, chosen by a panel of architectural glitterati. Generally, the projects that have won it are built with undisclosed or eyewatering budgets with little consideration of the environment and community – the Accordia housing project (Fielden Clegg Bradley with Alison Brookes) being a notable exception. There is a separate award for projects of social merit sending out the unhealthy message that good architecture doesn’t have to have social merit. The Stirling Prize has done a good deal to perpetuate the myth that architecture is all about iconic buildings, a corollary of which is their marginalisation from the production of housing. Whilst there are no robust figures anecdotally it seems like as little as 10% of housing is built with the input of an architect. This is a problem as somebody has to take responsibility for design quality during the life of a project and beyond. The delivery of design value is the subject of a major strand of empirical research currently being undertaken by the CaCHE Place team.

In awarding the Stirling Prize to a ‘council’ housing project the Royal Institute of British Architects is affirming its recent commitment to social purpose. With a revised Code of Conduct, the work of its Ethics and Sustainability Commission and its commitment to the Climate Change Emergency the RIBA is changing. The profession of architecture is changing too.

Not only did Margaret Thatcher decimate the production of local authority housing through the introduction of Right to Buy, she also decimated local authority architect departments up and down the country. Traditionally some 50% of the profession was ‘salaried’, enabling them to make buildings and develop research that spanned across government departments. With the closure of government building programmes, architects moved into the private sector where they had to fend for themselves in a harsh market economy of plummeting fees. The delivery of affordable housing has had to be achieved through cross-subsidy, an increasingly difficult task.

Morphet and Clifford’s excellent report on local authority housing delivery shows how creative and innovative local authorities have been for some time in delivering housing against all odds – Goldsmith Street is just one example. The announcement that caps on local authority borrowing had been removed might have been eclipsed by, former Prime Minister, Theresa May’s dancing in her famous speech last year, but it gave local authorities the licence that they have needed for so long to accelerate production.

Rather than working for ‘starchitects’ many young architects and planners leaving university, inspired by exciting and innovative organisations such as Croydon’s Brick by Brick and Public Practice, want to work for local authorities delivering real value in housing – social, environmental and economic value too. The Goldsmith Street prize, a credit to the entire team that brought it into being,  will add impetus to this important and heartening movement.

Professor Flora Samuel is a Co-Investigator at the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence, leading the ‘Place’ theme, and Professor of Architecture in the Built Environment at the University of Reading. 

Views expressed by authors may not represent the views of CaCHE.

Photo: Tim Crocker / RIBA

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Date: October 10, 2019 2:49 pm


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