Published  22/10/2001

The Royal Institute of British Architects' Stirling Prize 2001

The Royal Institute of British Architects’ Stirling Prize 2001

This year’s award ceremony in the Great Court of the British Museum (itself not a contender) was memorable in that the favourite didn’t win. Last year considerable added interest to the learned deliberations of the judges was given by Tracey Emin, a remarkably intelligent and sensible judge with her feet on the ground. This year one of the judges was, of course, ex officio last year’s winner, Will Alsop. His avuncular, rotund figure could be seen on Waldemar Januszczak’s special television coverage, scaling heights, sliding down mega-escalators, talking sotto voce behind interviewer and interviewee and generally stirring things up. But, in fact, the right decision was made, and the prize given to Alsop’s immediate London rival, Chris Wilkinson of Wilkinson and Eyre. Wilkinson has been quietly stalking the maverick enfant terrible, coolly upstaging his multicoloured imagery for two or three years now. And wham! It’s their Magna Centre, Rotherham, which gratis Alsop has actually won the prize. This is not to say that a large proportion of the British public was not actually deeply in love with Nicholas Grimshaw’s Eden Project, the favourite.

To take the Eden Project first. Costing £57 million ($83 million), the design sprang from a basic concept by the great American inventor-architect Buckminster Fuller, who developed the geodesic dome in its early simplicity. Grimshaw has taken the prototype and developed it into segments to permit much greater flexibility, enabling the establishment of separately controlled microclimates for the various plants so contained and grown. The centre is housed in a former clay quarry. The visitor first observes, from afar, a dramatic sight: small, seemingly digitalised figures, as in a staged film set inspired by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, filing into the nearest of the two biospheres ahead. Closer in, more figures appear, moving up and down. Some 450,000 of these figures have in fact been through the project since it opened earlier this year. The space between the two biospheres contains the actual entrance lobby. This is somewhat unceremoniously detailed, almost as an afterthought, which reflects engineering rather than architectural culture. But the whole scheme is a phenomenal eye-opener. The public has been truly enthralled.

One might pause momentarily here simply to reflect on the importance of capturing the public imagination to ensure success. If a fraction of the ingenuity applied to the Eden Project had been directed at the Millennium Dome, the story would have been different. That project also had ‘high tech’ aspirations, and ended in disaster. The London Eye, in contrast, like the Eden Project, has succeeded from Day One.

The Magna Centre also has this quality, albeit in a very different form yet again. This lottery-funded, science-based adventure centre is located at the abandoned steelworks at Templeborough in the Rotherham constituency of the Prime Minister, no less. But it has needed a little elbow grease to get it going. The idea, again, is brilliant. First, for authenticity (and economy) the megalith, that was, has largely been retained. A continuous upper-level viewing platform runs, for 400 yards, right through the entire length of the complex, allowing the public entry to the four interactive exhibition pods. These deal with Earth, Air, Fire and Water, the traditional four elements of early science. This puts ‘sone-et-lumiere’ into the dark ages. The highpoint of the visit is, in fact, a 12-minute contemporary light and sound spectacular entitled ‘The Big Melt’, which simulates the return of the whole works to activity with a combination of fireworks, fire and fumes.

The whole mega-display makes Tate Modern seem a ‘doddle’: indeed one is prompted to say that Wilkinson would have made more, at Tate Modern of that great ravine that separates the generators from the art, than the actual architects chosen.

It has to be said, and this is the inevitable drawback of such prizes, that it is almost impossible to decide a winner in such a raft of schemes of varied scale and size, as constitutes the Stirling Prize. It cannot be likened to the Turner Prize (or only in hype); nor can any comparisons be drawn with literary awards, such as the Booker Prize and the Whitbread. Accordingly, the other short-listed entries for the Stirling Prize, despite obvious distinction, fall into disarray in terms of scale and cohesion. There is the fine Ondaatje Wing at the National Portrait Gallery, impeccable in a well detailed sense, and yet curiously antiseptic, to the extent that the superbly located rooftop restaurant seems too good to actually push forks around in. Then, there is the lavishly expensive office block providing offices for MPs opposite the Palace of Westminster, coupled to its new Tube station: the consensus is that the poetry is in the Tube.

A strong contender could have been Michael Wilford and Partners’ sleek new Berlin Embassy, located on the original site – a triumph of elegant planning, around a courtyard of generous dimensions. Here the atrium maximises the impact of daylighting factors. Given the complex issue of how to represent ‘Cool Britannia’ architecturally, dignified yet cutting edge, Wilford has succeeded eminently. Also on the shortlist was an outstanding doctor’s surgery (by architect Guy Greenfield) achieving perfection by screening the working parts from a raucous dual carriageway. And finally, a remodelling of a l960s house by architects Eldridge and Smerin. (Note: yes, the Sixties need remodelling, but don’t go too far as to obscure the original).

As with the Booker Prize, the decision is between intriguing, seemingly reticent Carey, (for who read Grimshaw). And even more charmingly curtailed grey-suited McEwan (for who read Wilkinson). In that contest, the former won and the latter lost.

This time, at least for McEwan fans, it was a win (ie read Wilkinson), which was some consolation. The point being that it could have happened either way. Eh, Alsop?

Now the initial jockeying for the prize for 2001 (Stirling, not Booker) has begun. Foster is rumoured to be happier, given the presumed competition, this time to enter the British Museum Great Court. Perhaps, for a building to act as host to the competition it intends to win next year gives it pole position. Who can tell? It’s the prestige, which the prize has now established, since it began in l996 that counts. Unlike Dunhill Golf, for example, where the prize money is £500,000 for the winner, the Turner value is a mere £20,000. Which tells us something about contemporary culture.

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