'Blinking Eye' wins architecture's top award

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The Independent Online

The Gateshead Millennium Bridge, known by Tynesiders as the "Blinking Eye", has won Britain's most coveted award for architecture, the Stirling prize.

The Gateshead Millennium Bridge, known by Tynesiders as the "Blinking Eye", has won Britain's most coveted award for architecture, the Stirling prize.

Its elegant and highly dramatic dual arch has given its designers, Wilkinson Eyre Architects, a unique double ­ they scooped the prize last year with the Magna Centre in Rotherham, South Yorkshire.

The win gives Tyneside a prestigious landmark-cum-gong and provides Newcastle and Gateshead with a leg-up in their joint bid to become European City of Culture in 2008. It also adds some weight to the argument that big lottery-funded architectural projects can help to kick start urban regeneration.

"This is all about how we regenerate," said the Gateshead council leader, Mick Henry, after the award ceremony at Gateshead's Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art. "We have to make sure that these projects on the quayside have an effect. If they don't, it's just an architectural gesture.We've got an icon. This is not dumbing down.People crossing this bridge know it is extraordinary, and they love it."

The Gateshead Millennium Bridge is an unexpected example of structural engineering that may have a significant effect on social engineering. "We've had a million people across it already. This is art, technology and design coming together ­ icing on the cake of a long-term regeneration strategy," Mr Henry said.

At least two other short-listed projects offered stiff competition to the winner. Edward Cullinan's low-tech, peanut-shaped Downland Gridshell was highly favoured by critics; so, too, was Richard Rogers' crystalline Lloyd's Register. And the designers of Edinburgh's dance base, Malcolm Fraser Architects, were plainlybitterly disappointed after the judging.

But it appears to have been no contest. The judges for the £20,000 prize, sponsored by the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Architect's Journal, fell arch, deck and cables for a bridge that, said Paul Frinch of the Government's Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, was "one of those obvious solutions that nobody had ever thought of before. In the last few years there's been the London Eye, the Angel of the North and now this. It's the one new piece of architecture that will be remembered by people this year."

Not in Westcliffe-on-Sea, it won't. The Gateshead Millennium Bridge may be cutting-edge steel elegance, but sharp edges are a distinct no-no at Westborough Primary School where the activity centre is made of cardboard. The structure, designed by Cottrell and Vermeulen, won the Stephen Lawrence prize, sponsored by the Goldschmied Foundation, and the RIBA Journal Sustainability Award.

Projects such as the Gateshead Millennium Bridge may be less common in the future. They will continue to be built to rebrand cities but the Lotto cash for them is drying up. "We are seeing the last vestiges of these projects," said Jim Eyre, co-principal of Wilkinson Eyre.

"It's been an extraordinary period for British architecture. But perhaps the focus will shift away from cultural projects. We are seeing sustainability and education coming onto the agenda."

Too late, though for architecture on this year's Stirling prize shortlist whose key fault was not architectural excellence but a lack of glamour.

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