British architecture's greatest outsider will become its most talked about insider when the Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba) confirms today that the Queen is to present him with its 2011 Royal Gold Medal – one of the greatest prizes in building design.
Until now, Sir David Chipperfield has been one of UK architecture's most neglected sons – he had to prove his worth abroad rather than in Britain because he has, until relatively recently, found it impossible to get major commissions here. But his Hepworth Art Gallery in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, is likely to finally dye-stamp him on our cultural scene when it opens in the spring.
His elevation to the pantheon of gold medal winners, alongside the likes of Sir Edwin Lutyens, Louis Kahn Frank Lloyd Wright and Lord Foster, carries a glimmer of irony. When Sir David won the 2007 Stirling Prize for his Museum of Modern Literature in Marbach, Germany, he openly criticised the closed-shop atmosphere of British design competitions, in which Riba is often involved.
But the stand-off is now over and erased with a mannerly bow. Sir David accepted his gold medal nomination with a heartfelt, diplomatic statement. "I am overwhelmed by the decision of the Riba to award me the 2011 Royal Gold Medal, and to join a list that includes so many great architects and personal heroes," he said. "I hope my career will justify this great honour and that I can fulfil the expectations that this award bestows on me."
Earlier this year, Sir David, 57, told The Independent: "Architecture is about judgements and values and what one believes in. Architecture is about how you put the individual person in a particular position in the world – a world where people rarely find their place."
His mindset aligns him with his greatest European contemporaries, such as Álvaro Siza, Peter Zumthor and Rafael Moneo, all of whom are influenced by the tensions that lie between modernism and the phenomena of history. Sir David has been a hero to young British architects of the "anti-bling" persuasion for more than a decade; they will regard his newly-gilded status as long overdue.
Deborah Saunt, the Riba insider who nominated him for the medal, certainly deserves Brownie points for enshrining a modernist architect with a love of books, art and rugby, whose designs draw from the actual and intangible qualities of places and their histories. Shock-of-the-new buildings will never be produced by David Chipperfield Architects. Patrick Lynch, one of the most gifted of Britain's rising new designers, summed up Sir David's importance, saying: "Chippo reminds us that good design isn't simply a subjective matter. Truth and beauty are unfashionable terms today, but good architecture cannot just be dramatic, nor is it just problem-solving or technical ingenuity. In his best buildings, the beauty of truth and the truth of beauty are reinforced, and a deeper meaning is revealed. His buildings work in the way poems work."
Yet in the first decade of his career, Sir David got little work in the UK apart from shop makeovers, and his only blips on the radar here came when he designed the Henley Rowing Museum and a studio for the sculptor Antony Gormley. By then, he had based his relatively small practice in Berlin and was beginning to pick up big commissions. In 2005 his design for Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Iowa, showed an outstanding control of materials and form that was absolutely anti-iconic: here was a large, thoroughly modernist glass building of decorous elegance.
In 2006, three buildings by Sir David – BBC Scotland's headquarters in Glasgow, the America's Cup building in Valencia, Spain, and the Marbach museum – proved that glinting, high-tech architecture and blobby forms were not the only games in town.
His most recent project, the restoration of Berlin's Neues Museum, is considered a masterpiece by some critics. Even so, Sir David's civil and culturally informed work may yet remain surplus to requirements in Britain, which still seems enthralled by standout buildings that are architectural brand marks for big businesses, or yet more vilely "stunning" des-res housing and retail developments.
Previous winners: Designs for living
2010: Leoh Ming Pei
Born in Canton, China, in 1917, he travelled to the US in 1935 to study architecture and never returned to live in his home country. Perhaps his most famous work is the unmistakable glass pyramids of the Grand Louvre in Paris, completed in 1993.
2009: Álvaro Siza
The Portuguese architect finished his first project – a group of four houses in the coastal town of Matosinhos, where he was born – when he was still a student. His work ranges from swimming pools to mass housing developments, including a residential complex in the poor area of Schilderswijk West, in The Hague.
2008: Edward Cullinan
Beginning his career working for Sir Denys Lasdun, the creator of the National Theatre building, he later set up his own practice. One of his more notable projects was the relocation of RMC Group's headquarters from a tower block in west London to a greenbelt site in Surrey. He obtained planning permission by creating a series of single-storey offices, camouflaged with roof gardens.
2007: Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron
One of the Swiss architects' most notable constructions is their spectacular conversion of the Bankside power station in London into the Tate Modern. They are also responsible for the curvaceous Allianz Arena in Germany, home of FC Bayern Munich, which opened in 2005 and was a venue for the 2006 World Cup.