Former RIBA president questions decision to award prize to expensive school in current economic climate

The award of the Stirling Prize to Zaha Hadid’s Evelyn Grace Academy in south London has been branded “politically dumb” by a former president of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA).

George Ferguson, who led the RIBA between 2003-5, said he was “angry” at the decision to award the prize to a school for the first time, at a time when spending on school architecture has come under heavy fire from the Conservative-led government.

At £3,300 per sq m, the £36.5m Evelyn Grace Academy is almost 40% more expensive per sq m than the average cost of a secondary school (£2,050), according to research by the James Review.

Ferguson said: “[The project] shows you can build a very good school with a lot of money which is not very politically astute at the moment.”

The former Stirling Prize chair also accused the judges of succumbing to “star worshipping” and called for the judging process to be “broadened out”.

He also accused the judges of “arrogance” and of ignoring public opinion, after Hadid’s project trumped long-standing bookies’ favourite the London 2012 Velodrome by Hopkins Architects, although he said he personally didn’t have a single preference as to the winner.

He added he believed the winning scheme was the worst winner for a decade, when Wilkinson Eyre’s Magna Centre in Rotherham won the award – which was also the venue for this year’s award ceremony.

“There are 100 schools that you could show in the UK that do as good or a better job,” he said. “The time for this big ego flash expensive architecture is over.”

Robin Nicholson, a senior partner at Edward Cullen Architects and a former Cabe commissioner, also questioned RIBA’s judgment. “Clearly as a profession we have got to do a lot more with less, so to honour such an expensive school at this time is a strange decision.”

But some architects welcomed the decision and claimed it was right for the RIBA to promote school architecture.

Ken Shuttleworth, founder of Make Architects, said: “I think it’s a great decision and great at a time when Gove is attacking schools.”

Paul Monaghan, a partner at AHMM, the practice behind the 2008 Stirling Prize shortlisted Westminster Academy, rejected the suggestion the judges had allowed politics to influence their decision.

“I’m familiar with the processes and I’m sure there’ll be no political pressure whatsoever. I’m really pleased a school’s won the Stirling Prize - this amplifies the message that school design is important.”

The RIBA defended the choice. RIBA’s head of awards, Tony Chapman, said: “The Stirling judges all agreed that the Evelyn Grace Academy had done most for the evolution of British architecture and the built environment in 2011. The Evelyn Grace Academy certainly did not win for political reasons – unless it is political to say that kids deserve the best.”

Academy is run by ARK (Absolute Return for Kids) Academy organisation, a charity set up by hedge-fund multimillionaire Arpad “Arki” Busson. ARK aims to offer opportunities to local children in inner cities in order to close the achievement gap between children from disadvantaged and more affluent backgrounds.