"It seems only a moment ago that Hugh Pearman and I agreed the first Stephen Lawrence Prize should be awarded to Ian Ritchie for the Terrasson Greenhouse set within a 5 hectare landscape designed by Kathryn Gustafson. At the time Ian said it was the award that he valued above any others.
That was 1998, the year Stephen Lawrence would have completed his Part 2 and, following investigation of his murder five years earlier, the year the McPherson report findings were published with the conclusion that institutional racism was prevalent in the police force and specifically in relation to the failed prosecution of the culprits for Stephen’s murder.
At the same time I was judging the £20,000 Stirling Prize, just launched with the support of the Sunday Times. It was obvious from the outset this was always likely to be an award for high profile projects with prize-money going to architects who were probably already millionaires whilst smaller projects and younger architects were unlikely to ever even be considered for Stirling.
I felt this left a significant gap in the recognition and promotion of talent in the profession. Doreen Lawrence was also keen to found a bursary for architecture students in Stephen’s memory. These events were the catalyst for the MG Foundation deciding to launch the annual £5,000 Stephen Lawrence Prize and £5,000 bursary.
Looking back now, as we come to the prize’s 20th year, I am awestruck by the skill, imagination and sheer persistence displayed not only by the architects of the winners but also by the architects of many other shortlisted projects which are outstanding achievements.
The MG Foundation has set up this website to recognise not only the winners but all the shortlisted runners-up.
The visits to all the winners have been special but my most enduring memories are of a handful of visits: one with Softroom to the elegant shelter in the wilds of the Kielder Forest that jumped out like a surprise stainless steel jack-in-the-box; and to two buildings in County Cork, Philip Gumuchdjian’s magical waterside studio in Skibbereen and the Niall McLaughlin house on a finger of land pointing into the Atlantic near Clonakilty.
Other memorable visits were to Simon Conder’s quirky neoprene-clad house on a wild shore of the English Channel in the shadow of the Dungeness B nuclear power station, Duggan Morris’s exquisite hidden jewel of a house in Peckham and John Pawson’s subtle pedestrian bridge in the super sensitive World Heritage Site of Kew Gardens.
Although stand-alone buildings have won in 13 of the last 20 years, the projects that involved extensions to existing buildings have also all been remarkable: from Munkenbeck + Marshall’s elegant glazed art gallery link at Roche Court in Salisbury, to private house extensions by Alison Brooks and Philip Gumuchdjian in Chiswick and Kensington respectively. Not least in this group are two school extensions: Cottrell + Vermeulen’s witty and ingenious cardboard structured art room in Westcliff-on-Sea, Phil Coffey’s thoughtful long-term strategy for upgrading and extending a group of run-down 1960s school buildings in Kentish Town and Taro Tsuruta’s Forest Hill house extension.
In addition to the 20 winners there have been some exceptionally close seconds which might well have won in another year. Such is the lottery of awards. My personal standouts, which ran the winners very close, are Ty Hedfan - a house in the Brecon Beacons by Featherstone Young, Carmody Groarke’s 7/7 Memorial in Hyde Park and Niall McLaughlin’s café on Deal pier. Another really memorable shortlisted entry was the Martello Tower in Suffolk converted by Piercy & Co into a single house with extraordinary 50cm diameter light ‘conduits’ drilled diagonally through the 4 metre thick solid brickwork walls. Amazingly bonkers but it works!
In the great tradition of the RIBA Awards, Doreen Lawrence and I, together with various previous winners, have visited every building shortlisted. About 100 to date over the years as far afield as the western shores of Ireland and Scotland to Catania in Sicily.
After all these years I shouldn’t still be surprised how crucial these visits are. Alluring photos full of promise can, when visited, turn into disappointing buildings and vice versa. Often the difference is in the smallest details. The technical skill in elegantly resolving tricky junctions and complex geometries or using innovative techniques can make all the difference. Images alone can never convey this fully.
So many current awards are judged on the cheap, with juries passing final judgment round a coffee table based only on stills or videos which tell you little or nothing about a building’s texture, resonance, smell and physical context.
The RIBA’s reintroduction of ‘border controls’ restricting all awards to buildings in the UK reverses the EU wide qualification I introduced in 1998. Buildings of the calibre of the Stuttgart Music School, the Grand Bleu in Marseilles, the MAXXI in Rome, Madrid’s Barajas Airport and the Neues Museum in Berlin would no longer be eligible for Stirling and nor would the 1998, 2003 and 2005 winners of the Stephen Lawrence Prize.
Considering the economic upheavals of the last 10 years I am glad to be able to say the Stephen Lawrence Prize, unlike Stirling and the plethora of other awards that have come and gone since, is unique in having retained its annual £5,000 prize money to the architects and the matching £5,000 to the Stephen Lawrence Trust architecture bursaries.
Nothing can make up for Stephen’s untimely death but the collection of wonderful projects carrying awards in his memory is, I hope, building a quiet but significant memorial."