Stirling Prize 2013

Gaint's Causeway Design Competition

Congratulations to Astley Castle, winner of the Stirling Prize 2013.

I must admit, I was gunning for the Giant’s Causeway so was delighted to see the National Trust receiving the award for RIBA Client of the Year – a sterling achievement.

Despite not winning, it was an amazing achievement for the Giant’s Causeway to have been shortlisted and worthy recognition for everyone involved. Particularly remarkable given how far the project has come from those dark days of political in-fighting, an incoherent planning system and a succession of false starts.  It is astonishing what a collective vision, hard work and collaboration can overcome.

Róisín Heneghan and Shih-Fu Peng’s clever design is subtle, sensitive and respectful of the World Heritage Site and even contains hidden elements which only a few know exist but which may reveal themselves in years to come. In the words of Kevin McCloud, “the building has integrity”.

It is now 10 years since my involvement in the Giant’s Causeway project began. Good things clearly come to those that wait.

On 23 April 2003 a joint ministerial announcement by Angela Smith (then Minister for the Environment) and Ian Pearson (then Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment) set out a three part strategy for the Giant’s Causeway and Causeway Coast World Heritage Site. Part three being: “to stage an international design competition for a new visitor centre”. I was then appointed with a true Pandora’s Box of a role: prepare a brief, author the business case and run a design competition. Fortunately I could lean on the enormous experience and sage counsel of Ray Payne who worked with us throughout the process.

For two and half years we shuttled back and forth to Belfast despite earning zero frequent flyer points – what were we thinking?

It was a challenging task. We were green, perhaps naive, and certainly ignorant to much of the project’s troubled history. In hindsight, that probably helped. By the time we came along, the status of the project had been elevated by the ministers and there was a will amongst the stakeholders to make things happen and to deliver something special.

We were tasked with replacing not just one but two visitor centres. The National Trust’s traditional building sat uneasily against Moyle’s wood-clad portakabin – a temporary replacement for their twice fire-damaged tourist information centre. Private interests had been circling for a while as well, tactically assembling land in the knowledge that it was a cash-cow. Against this backdrop, the threat of UNESCO withdrawing its World Heritage Site status loomed large. It was always going to be a challenge to get such a varied group of stakeholders, each with their own agenda, united in support of a single idea. We have seen so many projects in similar circumstances fall away completely or mutate into a ‘one size fits all’ monument to blandness.

Bruce Robinson, the then Permanent Secretary of DETI was an instrumental ringmaster through the early years. Ten years on it’s easy to overlook what influence he had, but I firmly believe that without Bruce the project would have failed again.  Any one of the stakeholders involved could have derailed the project. Few realised its significance at the time, but I vividly remember one meeting in the bowels of Stormont when, collectively, the stakeholders arrived at a shared vision. A rare but seminal moment, which ultimately changed the course of the project and paved its way forward.

An old colleague of mine always said that ‘a successful project has a thousand parents but a failed one is a bastard’. He wasn’t wrong and on this occasion I shamelessly jump two feet onto this particular bandwagon.

Heneghan and Peng were worthy winners of a hard fought design competition – over 200 entries from around the world – and I take immense pride in the fact that I authored the design brief, which they so cleverly interpreted. Not without intention, the fifth and final objective in the design brief called for:

“a world class facility that achieves best practice standards in terms of architectural design and its integration into the landscape”.

Congratulations again to Heneghan and Peng and the whole Giant’s Causeway team for producing a RIBA Stirling Prize shortlisted design and to the National Trust – RIBA Client of the Year 2013. I guess we can consider that last objective met.


Image: (left to right) Jim Roberts, Róisín Heneghan, Shih-Fu Peng, Ray Payne, Oct-05