Zaha Hadid’s school runs counter to today’s politically austere mood, but this inspiring piece of design is a worthy winner of this year’s Stirling prize

Zaha Hadid winning the Stirling prize for an “expensive” Brixton school; is it a shot in the foot or a shot in the arm for British architecture?

Every generation or so it seems that architects have to re-convince the Brits about the value of investing in good design. Each time, we have to use a different argument depending on the prevailing national mood. Like George Bush Jr said, “It’s like deja vu, all over again”.

Some blame our pragmatic anti-design culture on Henry VIII. He sacked the monasteries and churches, putting the religious art industry in England out of business and arguably turning us into a literary society (enter Shakespeare, Bacon and so on). We still write more books than the Americans, despite being a third of their size. But you can’t blame it on Protestantism. The Germans and Scandinavians “get art” and “get architecture” in a way we just don’t. It’s in their cultural DNA - just like it’s in the Mediterraneans’ and the South Americans’. The irony is that as we have brilliant art and architecture courses and we turn out some of the best artists and architects in the world.

I thought we had it cracked during the long Labour boom when great design and architecture became a lifestyle magazine subject and even the schools’ programmes became infused with the necessity for good architecture to support good teaching. It seemed like the Brits, at last, got good design and our best architects could return from exile, from building in Germany and Asia, to practice at home. I failed to see the trap PFI and the bankers had set us.

Headlining with Building Schools for the Future (BSF), architects have become associated under the new Tory government with projects where needless excess seemed to triumph over common sense to burden us with debt. This is a misunderstanding, giving everyone a scapegoat. In reality the architects were working to a brief delivered by their PFI paymasters, those same paymasters who are offering flat-pack one-size-fits-all solutions now the wind has changed.

What is in the Brits’ DNA is ingenuity and architects are no exception. If we want well designed schools with standard components at lowest cost and highest speed, all you need to do is ask. There are plenty of top-class teams supported by their consulting and supply chain colleagues, who can deliver just that. Just look at the CLASP schools by Henry Swain, Patera office systems by Hopkins, Oxford and Nucleus system hospitals by Powell and Moya to cite but a few. We need to use our talent, not be afraid of it or marginalise it.

So, back to Zaha’s win at the Stirling. A shot in the foot or the arm? Her well-fancied rival was Hopkins’ velodrome at the Olympic park. An elegant structure, it is easy on the eye and super politically correct. It looks forward to the Olympics, a Labour project enthusiastically adopted by the Tories (unlike BSF) and part of the regeneration of not only the Lea Valley but the whole nation. It was the public’s favourite and the live Stirling Prize audience in the Wilkinson Eyre’s (Stirling-winning) Magna Centre just knew it would win. But it didn’t and rumour has it that it didn’t even come second, it was beaten into third place by an insignificant looking (but actually very beautiful) Northern Irish project. Are architects mad? Don’t they know what’s good for them? When they are in a hole, don’t they know to stop digging?

There are two truths here. Firstly architects don’t give the most important architecture prize in the UK to the scheme they think will please the government. I for one would hate it if they did. Secondly, you can’t judge buildings by their photographs. The RIBA insists that contending buildings are visited and having been a Stirling judge I know how important that is.

Buildings need to be experienced first-hand to understand their qualities. You need to hear the story from the client and the users and to touch, feel and observe the building in use.
And anyway, I think that it’s pretty good to give generations of kids in Brixton an amazing building that might well change their lives, by one of the world’s greatest architects. That is a real legacy (eat your heart out Olympic park) and if it’s no longer PC, too bad. Will we design this type of school again in the near future? No, circumstances have changed; we can do something else that’s appropriate to the times that will be good in a different way.

Hadid’s Evelyn Grace Academy is a shot in the arm and a reminder of what real architecture can do for some very disadvantaged people.

Jack Pringle is a partner in Pringle Brandon