The glittering prize

With the Library of Birmingham in line for a major award, Alan Clawley argues that neither prize nor potential recipient are worthy of acclaim.

Birmingham’s library supremo, Brian Gambles, had a brief moment of TV glory this week to plug the Library of Birmingham for the Stirling Prize. Mr Gambles’ rhetoric is exaggerated as usual. He describes the cylindrical multi-storey void in the centre of the library as its “heart”. He claims that the vastly expensive building was necessary because Madin’s Central Library was already “unfit for purpose” in 1998 when the truth is that Albert Bore has promised it to a property developer who had wanted to demolish it since he was a youth. The building was only 24 years old in 1998.

The winner of the Stirling Prize, the architects’ equivalent of an Oscar, will be announced on 1th6 October. A sum of £20,000 will go to the designer but, as the buildings have been built for a year the architects’ fees have already been paid – £10 million in the case of Library of Birmingham architect Francine Houben. The cash is neither here nor there for this highly-paid ‘starchitect’; it’s the prestige that matters and winning the Stirling will bring them more work.

But, that aside, who else really cares whether the Library of Birmingham or any of the other short-listed buildings win a prize named in honour of a British architect whose work most people would not recognise if they saw it? The shortlisted buildings don’t even have much in common with each other. The judges are not choosing the best public library or the most efficient railway station. It’s simply about ‘architecture for architects’. The shortlisted buildings are a rag-bag of new projects – the London Aquatics Centre, the Everyman Theatre, Liverpool, the London School of Economics, the Shard, and Manchester School of Art.

If he had been alive today Jim Stirling, who died in 1992, wouldn’t have liked any of the shortlisted designs. And in any case, the chances are that, given the choice, he would have preferred Madin’s library to Houben’s. His earliest work, with James Gowan was a housing scheme at Ham Common in London that is now regarded as Brutalist. Their 1960s Engineering Faculty at Leicester University is more famous for its edginess.

Stirling went on to design the Cambridge History Faculty (1968) and the post-modern Neue Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart (1984). However his Southgate housing in Runcorn New Town (1976) was a social disaster and has since been demolished.

The Royal Institute of British Architects appear to regard Stirling with the kind of uncritical reverence normally lavished on great artists who have died before their time. In explaining on their website why the Prize was named after him they state, “it could not have been named after a living architect as that would have barred them from entering for the prize”. A more likely reason is that a dead architect is immune from criticism and can thus be safely accorded heroic qualities.

A Stirling Prize for the Library of Birmingham will certainly benefit the architect and enhance her already successful career. It will spread a glowing image of Birmingham around the world. But it will not endorse Brian Gambles’ assertion that the building which it replaced was unfit for its purpose. The judges of the Stirling Prize will have nothing to say about that.