Announcing this year’s winner of the RIBA Stirling Prize judges described it as a ‘modest masterpiece”.
This year’s winner was Goldsmith Street in Norwich also described as ‘an architectural marvel’. Judges say it represents what has become a rare breed: streets of terraced homes built directly by the council, rented with secure tenancies at fixed social rents.
There were similar plaudits for the 2017 winner, it was described as: ‘a masterpiece of regeneration which has evolved the idea of what architecture is and what architects should do.’
Judges were talking about Hastings Pier – but the heady days of winning the nation’s top architectural prize now seem a distant and hazy memory.
Does winning the architectural Oscar make a difference? Bernard McGinley takes a look at the built environment, and the role of local institutions and government in sustaining it.
For some decades the Stirling Prize has represented the best of what British architecture has to offer. The winners and runners up enjoy a kudos not otherwise achievable. There may be occasional grumbles about better work elsewhere, but this is the national and international shop window for architectural talent and design.
In Britain and beyond, the ‘Bilbao effect’ was marked in the prestige of Stirling Prize recognition. Frank Gehry’s 1997 Guggenheim Museum had transformed the economy of the Basque town. Renown was reaped, heavily. The Scottish Parliament building by Enric Miralles won it in 2005, and is widely admired as a manifestation of the new Scotland.
Norman Foster’s practice won it in 1998 for an aviation museum at Duxford and again in 2004 for the Gherkin – though Ken Shuttleworth deserved the recognition. Foster and Partners won again in 2018 for the Bloomberg Building in the City of London.
Sir James Stirling died in 1992 but his practice – now Michael Wilford and Associates – won the Prize in 1997 for the Stuttgart Music School; Richard Rogers won in 2006 for an airport terminal in Madrid; David Chipperfield in 2007 for a museum building in Germany.
The prize is for ‘the greatest contribution to the evolution of architecture in the past year’ and is now restricted to the UK. It is judged on criteria including:
- Design vision
- Innovation and originality
- Capacity to stimulate, engage and delight occupants and visitors
- Accessibility and sustainability
- How fit the building is for its purpose, and
- The level of client satisfaction.
Winning the Stirling involves instant wow and usually landmark status: a destination of choice. The distinction is immense – or so you would think.
Walking the plank
In 2017, something remarkable happened. Against stiff competition the Stirling Prize was awarded to Hastings Pier, for a design by dRMM and Alex de Rijke leading.
It was the first – and possibly the last – time a pier had won. The austerity of the design had a strong appeal: a delicate pavilion in a marine wilderness, a spaciousness like being at sea.
The Pier was celebrated as ‘the Plank’.
The Leader of Hastings Borough Council (HBC), Peter Chowney, said Stirling recognition would attract attention to Hastings for all the right reasons. As for winning he said: “…with the support, faith and vision of so many Hastings people who contributed their time, money and enthusiasm, it’s received this accolade . . . it’s something the whole town can take pride in.”
Amber Rudd offered her congratulations too: “This is a wonderful achievement and testament to the dogged determination from all parts of the town to make sure that we rebuilt our much loved Pier to a really high standard,” she said.
RIBA president and Stirling jury chair Ben Derbyshire described the project as a masterpiece of regeneration and inspiration: “The architects and local community have transformed a neglected wreck into a stunning, flexible new pier to delight and inspire visitors and local people.
“This design technique dismantles the existing building, reconfiguring reclaimed materials with new to create innovative forms, uses and experiences. History is recycled into new architecture: New from Old. The construction advantages of this approach are economy, practicality, and the avoidance of waste. The aesthetics of the project visibly embody local memory and pride. The values of the project embody local regeneration with a sustainability that is simultaneously environmental and social,” he said about the award winning pier.
The Stirling Prize judges said the project ‘evolved the idea of what architecture is and what architects should do’ and praised dRMM’s realisation of ‘this masterpiece of subtle, effortless design’.
“They have driven this project through to completion: campaigning, galvanising and organising local support throughout each aspect of the funding stage. They went above and beyond what most people think of as the role of the architect – and then they kept going!
“Councils across the country should take inspiration from Hastings Pier, and open their eyes to the unique assets that can be created when such collaborations take place,” he said.
And the man whose vision the pier was, drMM co-founder Alex de Rijke, said: “This space offered more potential than an ‘iconic’ building on the end of the pier, and demonstrates the evolving role of the architect as an agent for change.”
In a video he also described the Pier’s decline into ‘a shantytown of commercialism, and abandoned’. The revival – ‘a Phoenix project’ – rearranged the old material of the old Pier into flexible spaces with great possibilities: education and functions in two large rooms. The transformation included the role of the architects as agents of change.
- Watch the video by following this link
The praise was extensive and profuse. The practical regard for the Pier proved more evanescent, one of the memorial plaques on the new Pier reads: “For God’s sake look after it this time.” It was good advice, much neglected.
Under new management
Hastings Pier had burnt down in 2010 and was rebuilt with local and Lottery money, about £14 million in all. As a tourist attraction it sadly foundered before it could flourish and in 2018 the Administrators sold it for about £60k, to a local businessman.
The new owner put toy animals across the Pier and filled full the function rooms with gaming machines. The new building’s high outdoor café-bar went unused, and unnecessary painting of the Pier railings went messily uncompleted.
He also disfigured the building with speakers and signage and battens, disregarding the Pier’s Grade 2 listed building status, the Conservation Area setting, and requirements for listed building consent. Hastings Borough Council essentially let him. Planning committee reports routinely stated: “…whilst the (Stirling) award is gratefully received, it can only be given little weight in the consideration of this application”.
But this is not true. The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), paragraph 189, is clear that the significance of a ‘heritage asset’ is to be considered and weighed.
Now that the Pier damage is done – in a regression towards a shantytown of commercialism – some belated enforcement action is slowly supposedly in process.
When in early 2019 planning applications were made for five large garden sheds on the Pier, the committee reports – despite precedents for refusal – ‘recommended approval’, which is then what happened.
The distinction of being a winner of the Stirling Prize was furiously discounted and disregarded. The melancholy consequence is that many winners of the Carbuncle Cup, run by Building Design, get more TLC and better maintenance than Hastings Pier.
Its ability to ‘stimulate, engage and delight’ has literally taken a battering since the summer of 2018.
Did local authorities across the country take inspiration from Hastings Pier, and open their eyes to the unique assets that can be created when such collaborations take place? Possibly, but our local council was not among them.
The lack of civic pride shown by Hastings Borough Council is extraordinary. Nearly everywhere has it – even when there is little else to celebrate.
In Hastings however, councillors and council officers have been throwing it away for years and endangering local buildings too.
Many local residents are unimpressed, even angry. Seaside towns such as Bexhill and Worthing, which have a fraction of the architectural distinctiveness of Hastings and St Leonards, look on with quiet amusement; Battle and Rye take its tourist business; in its careless discouragement of visitors, and damage to the local economy, Hastings is in danger of turning itself into a national laughing-stock.
The 2019 shortlist for the Stirling Prize included new London Bridge Station by Nicholas Grimshaw and the Macallan Distillery on Speyside by Richard Rogers (aka Rogers Stirk Harbour) and of course The Goldsmith Street housing scheme in Norwich by Mikhail Riches with Cathy Hawley which always seemed to be the favourite.
Hopefully the local authority in Norwich will not show the expensive incomprehension of Hastings Borough Council, whose lack of understanding even extends to garden towns, a concept recently revived. Hastings is in essence one, and has been one since the great James Burton arrived in the 1820s to develop St Leonards-on-Sea, assisted by his son Decimus, soon to be a founder member of RIBA.
Now the green spaces are under relentless threat, with council complicity. The cases are many: one instance is reported in the Architects’ Journal of April 2nd this year: “Hastings Borough Council is recruiting a design team to explore leisure and cultural options for the Bohemia area”. This is Lower Bohemia, the high open area immediately north of the Pier.
Will it ever win the Stirling Prize? Or deserve to?
Time and chance would strongly suggest not.