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Editorial View: The Secret Lives of Buildings Beyond the Lure of Awards

On the uneasy relationship between reductivist beauty contests and architecture’s nuanced narratives and complexities

The recent announcement of the RIBA Stirling Prize shortlist has stoked up the usual feverish debate about what constitutes ‘good’ architecture and what should or shouldn’t win. But an awards scheme that can pit the Shard against the Everyman Theatre, thus perilously straddling an engorged spectrum of style, scale, client, context, user and urban contribution, is a fundamentally impossible proposition when you get down to it. One former editor of The Architects’ Journal despairingly remarked that judging the Stirling was like trying to compare a cookery book with a slim volume of poetry. Apart from both being printed on paper, they have nothing else in common. So do you plump for cookery or poetry?

This, it seems, is the curse of all architectural awards. The reductivist format of the beauty contest that now inescapably underpins all forms of contemporary cultural output sits particularly uneasily with the more nuanced narratives and complexities of architecture. It also skirts around the essential purpose of buildings, which is not solely to strut their stuff at the catwalk moment of completion, but to work: firmly, commodiously and delightfully, and be part of a continuum that reflects bigger ambitions for humanity.

There are no endurance prizes for buildings whose lives are especially well (or badly) lived, but perhaps there should be. Initial brilliance can diminish over time and, conversely, initial unremarkability evolve into something truly compelling. And as buildings have lifespans of centuries, unlike films or books, the perpetually shifting sands of time, history and the human condition bestow a fascinating freight of new meanings and purposes on them as they age.

The notion of architectural transformation over time and how this physical and experiential alchemy shapes people’s lives is the subject of Tom Wilkinson’s book Bricks and Mortals, reviewed this month. ‘Every building represents a particular moment, sometimes more than one’, as Tim Brittain-Catlin writes in his review ‘and they have a world that circles about it.’ Like a clutch of particularly juicy obituaries,Wilkinson’s agile dissection of ten buildings, from Nero’s Golden House to Detroit’s Highland Park Car Factory (an even more implausibly engorged spectrum than the Stirling shortlist) is studded with glittering and forensic detail as he examines how they became witting and unwitting conduits for all sorts of social, economic, cultural and personal appropriation.

But beyond the racy anecdotes there is a more serious purpose ‘that impresses on every reader the breadth of the circumstances that make a building worth remembering, both at the time and since, and why’, writes Brittain-Catlin. In connecting a rich skein of threads showing how architecture resonates over the centuries in ways that can be spectacular, mundane, nefarious, enigmatic but always meaningful, Wilkinson deftly touches at the very core of what makes us human. So forget the Stirling’s cookery and poetry and immerse yourself in some real history instead.

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