Thoughts on RIBA Stirling Prize 2012 & The Hepworth Wakefield

Interesting & exhausting week thinking about what architecture does for people, places & art.  I know what an incredible change The Hepworth Wakefield has brought to the city and region since it opened 18 months ago.  Before it opened I spent 3 years energetically defending & enthusing for Chipperfield’s building & the project in all manner of political & community forums that were concerned hugely about the money being spent & whether it would actually be a success, or even visited.  The Hepworth was an impressively imaginative, inventive & courageous project for a Local Authority to initiate and successfully deliver through the toughest of economic times (so much easier to have just refurbished a 19th century warehouse, or whatever). 18 months on and the gallery is now seen and used as a much-appreciated, and loved, resource for local people & families helping create a very palpable sense of civic pride in a place that often had, understandably, a somewhat self-defeating inferiority complex. The gallery is also now contributing successfully to creating a very large visitor economy for the region & being used daily as an educational resource by a huge number of local schools, colleges and universities.

For The Hepworth to have achieved 512,000 visitors in the first year alone has been remarkable – we are now on course for a sector-leading 400,000 in year two.  We don’t get any passing footfall where we are positioned on the outside of the city centre (no quick loo trips, shop browsers, or coffee drinkers boosting our numbers): every visit is an intentional one and the length of time people take for their visit is hugely heartening, as well as the sheer number of repeat visits that’ve been achieved.  I know the building, and what we’ve done with it, has helped developed a deep understanding & appreciation of the positive power of architecture, good design and great art as a crucial transformative part of all our lives.  The gallery is a valued, highly used, social hub for the city & region.  It’s a place where an aesthetic experience can unfold & where you are enabled to think creatively and make intriguing & meaningful connections between historic and contemporary art.  The building has helped developed and extend our audiences – it’s always exciting to approach it across the river & enter: the changing light and weather conditions bring out so many different aspects of the building’s character.  The galleries are simply superb spaces to visit and in which to experience great art.

I want to be a gracious loser with regard to the Stirling Prize, but it was especially hard to lose to a building with an enormous budget (dwarfing ours) in an extremely privileged city, and a project to which the public barely have access.  It isn’t a building that excites me at all from the photographs I’ve seen, but of course I reserve full judgement until I do, if I ever get access to it!  It’d be good too if some of the judges of the Stirling Prize were from the north, or lived in the north of England.  The Hepworth has a mission to help open up far wider national access to our national cultural resources, as well as work with private collections most of which are largely clustered in London and the south. It’s ambitious architecture that successfully serves a public function exceptionally well & distributes fairer access to cultural capital in the UK.

Competing for prizes and winning or losing always makes me regress to a mental age of about 8 years old…at best!  They should really be about the ongoing debate, conversation and the actual measurable use value of the buildings we create – hence this….

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