The three Rs of the RIBA Awards winners – risk, reticence, recession

Risk, reticence and recession are the 3 Rs  that leap out from the education dominated RIBA awards winners. The premise being that only a really bold architect would design something daring at a time of economic constraint. However, given what vanity has been displayed in recent years one would have supposed that boldness would not have been in short supply. It is the reality that falls some way short. A largely egg- and shoe-box inspired collection with windows best described as minimalist, the common theme is seemingly one of modesty. Even the big public projects seem derivative and cautious. Images of the visitor centre for the Giants Causeway (above) in Ireland suggest an attractive scheme but bring to mind Stonehenge, another early attempt at brutalist monolithic human construction with a spiritual dimension. Unless I’m missing something.

Daring to dream beyond the confines of arbitrary or actual environs is what so often excites about architecture. Cautiousness smacks of a short term view of posterity. Buildings on London’s south bank that were derided in the architects’ lifetimes are now beloved of city dwellers and visitors alike as cultural and social spaces. Surely it is possible to deal sympathetically with environmental and local societal concerns without compromising a vision. We’ve heard much sound and fury from the construction sector at the pace of recovery. We see in the awards list a missed opportunity to harness that energy to large scale infrastructure visions that might inject much needed impetus.

There can be no doubt that physical educational infrastructure needs urgent attention but it might be argued that a better investment is in bully-detterent teaching staff rather than toilets designed to acheive the same aim.

The nature of the future of work is exercising a lot of expert and mainstream commentary at present fuellled in part by the increasing prevalence of social technologies, cost pressures and the changing nature of workforce expectations. It is probably an over-simplification to view the projects in the list as a pretty wrapper for an under-analysed and nebulous future occupier but its not an appraisal easily avoided. However, as anyone who has tried to wrap an unwieldy, fragile and irregularly shaped gift will tell you, one does tend to use rather more materials than planned and end up with wasted space inside the resulting parcel.

As regular readers will know, I make no claims to expertise in these matters but I do think that we are perhaps overdue an architectural award that is judged by potential occupiers and users with prizes awarded for the thoughtfulness and insight into future use with which they are planned and executed.


Simon HeathSimon Heath is a freelance illustrator and commentator on workplace and facilities management issues and was formerly Head of Operations, Global Workplace Strategies at CBRE. For more of Simon’s worldly, wise and witty writing on all things work and workplace, visit his blog