Social Housing Should Win Prizes

In 2019, a social housing project in Norwich won the Stirling Prize, the most prestigious award in British architecture. It's a reminder of what public investment in housing can achieve – and why we need more of it.

Since 1996, the Stirling Prize has been awarded annually by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) to the building by a British architect that has made ‘the greatest contribution to the evolution of architecture’. The Stirling is British architecture’s equivalent of the Booker or Best Picture, an annual ritual performed in public when the shifting values of the industry are distilled into a single work. This publicity is of particular significance for architecture which, unlike cinema or literature, gets popular attention more often due to scandals like the Garden Bridge or disasters like Grenfell.

The Stirling, whose ceremony was sufficiently appealing to be broadcast on national TV until 2011, is generally won by photogenic public-facing buildings with large budgets: museums, galleries and theatres do well; the Gherkin won in 2004. However, in 2019, something unusual happened. The Stirling was won by a social housing project in Norwich.

Goldsmith Street is an 8,000m² development of two-and three-storey buildings containing 105 houses and flats on the edge of Norwich city centre. It was commissioned by the local council in 2009 and designed by architects Mikhail Riches, a quietly accomplished London firm. To the casual observer its terraced streets and brick walls may not look like much, which is precisely what was exciting about the award announcement.

Image credit: Tim Crocker.

‘The wow factor for that project is going there and seeing people living. Talking to them and seeing how their lives have changed, the transformative effect it’s had,’ explains Annalie Riches, director of Mikhail Riches, reflecting on the project 15 months after the Stirling win. ‘That’s the wow factor, but you can’t take a photo of it.’

Part of awards’ power comes from convenience. They package iconic images and celebrity names with a simple narrative, adding a whiff of scandal to produce irresistible content for cash-strapped media. So an optimistic reading of Goldsmith Street’s win is that it signalled a change in attitude amongst architectural kingmakers. While the 2018 winner, Foster & Partners’ offices for Bloomberg in London, was a greenwashed £1 billion monument to private wealth, Goldsmith Street’s victory seemed to back a future of affordable green living for everyone.

This shift raises interesting questions about the role prizes play in relation to moving social values. Do they drive social or aesthetic changes, or do they simply reflect them? The cynical response is that awards and the institutions behind them also have to keep up with trends or risk irrelevance and a loss of power.

For Riches, the shift from Bloomberg to Goldsmith Street reflected broader cultural currents. ‘The debate around climate change and environmental design had, in one year, gained much more momentum to the point where that became a significant part of the assessment process,’ she says. RIBA President Alan Jones wrote just before the announcement that it was ‘arguably the most sustainable shortlist ever.’

Juries and shortlists are clearly capable of reflecting the zeitgeist, but we expect awards to do more. The kind of winner implies a direction for culture and practice: novels that are more representative of our societies, films offering public support for social causes, records announcing the sounds of tomorrow. Even the kind of win can seem significant, like when the 2019 Turner Prize finalists convinced the jury to consider them as a collective and share the prize.

Rewarding a building (particularly via the thorough judging process of the Stirling) is also, at its best, a generative act setting a course for architectural practice. So when Goldsmith Street won the Stirling, it carried the potential, even the expectation, for a better housed future: ‘a great result for all those who want to see more housing delivered by the public sector’; ‘I hope it marks a return to the country’s best architects, producing our most needed homes,’ remarked industry figures at the time.

So did the celebration of Goldsmith Street inspire a wave of energy efficient council housing? Or was it simply a moment of ceremonial publicity that has been and gone? The answers are, of course, complex. We know there has been no housing revolution, but the importance of even small victories in a struggle for cultural change can be hard to recognise except in hindsight.

The total of available council houses continues to decrease annually, but local authorities across the UK have found ways to invest in new, high-quality housing, including those by other critically-acclaimed architects such as Peter Barber, Henley Halebrown, and Mary Duggan. Mikhail Riches themselves are working on a development led by York council which will deliver over 600 zero carbon homes. These largely predate the Stirling win, but they are exciting developments nonetheless.

Crucially, up to now, the project’s influence has been more evident in its climate credentials than its social gains. Part of the reason for Goldsmith Street’s success with the Stirling jury was its Passivhaus status—a certification for ultra-low energy usage in building performance—achieved through wonderfully executed, relatively lo-fi means: for example, particular roof pitches to capture sunlight, deep windowsills to allow for shading, external letterboxes to prevent draughts, and a high level of care in construction quality.

Image credit: Tim Crocker.

Unsurprisingly, Mikhail Riches now find themselves receiving briefs for new Passivhaus projects citing Goldsmith Street as an exemplary precedent. Building social housing, however, is more difficult. ‘I really hoped it would influence the debate around social housing and the environment,’ says Riches. ‘I think it’s done quite a lot for the environment and showing that this could be the norm and should be the norm. But social housing is political. We need to fund social housing, we need to see housing as part of infrastructure and as a necessity. It’s not a commodity.’

It is asking a lot for one architecture award to change housing policy, but the prestige and publicity of the Stirling prize does give it some leverage. In recent years, the climate crisis has had an impact on the assessment process, such that it seems unlikely that another Bloomberg—or at least another airport—could win the Stirling again. What other values might be found in judging criteria?

A recent campaign by Future Architects Front is calling on the RIBA to do more to support architectural assistants in the workplace, part of broader discussions taking place around architectural workers’ rights. How might the disciplinary mechanism of prizes be used to ensure fairer labour practices across the industry? Perhaps statements from former interns could become mandatory.

The next time the Stirling is given, one significant change to the judging process will already have taken place. As a result of the pandemic, the 2021 prize will only consider buildings completed in 2020, meaning the buildings will have been occupied and in use for a year, rather than shiny and new.

This has potentially interesting consequences. The experiences of building users—residents, employees, maintenance staff, even neighbours—should weigh in alongside the spiel of architects and clients, while environmental performance can finally be assessed with hard data rather than projections.

Understanding that awards’ power comes from their usefulness to the media, and the intrinsic limitations and occasional absurdity of competition between complex architectural works shouldn’t distract from their potential to affect change. Underneath all that is a warm urge to celebrate others, and there are worse places to start.