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RIBA Awards 2024: Q&A with Group Chair Simon Henley

In this Q&A, Simon Henley, Principal of Henley Halebrown, reflects on his new election as RIBA Awards Group Chair, his hopes for the 2024 awards season and key milestones to look out for the rest of the year.

29 January 2024

The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) has selected Simon Henley, Principal of Henley Halebrown, as the RIBA Awards Group Chair for 2024.

Simon Henley takes up the role from Denise Bennetts and will lead a national panel that decides the winners of the RIBA National Awards and the RIBA Stirling Prize shortlist. Previously winner of the Neave Brown Award 2022 and shortlisted for RIBA Stirling Prize in 2022 and 2018, Simon Henley looks to use his expertise to find the UK’s best new buildings.

In this Q&A, Simon reflects on his new election, hopes for the RIBA Awards 2024 season and key milestones to look out for during the rest of the year.

Simon Henley, RIBA Awards 2024 Group Chair (Credit: Duncan Lomax)

In what way is your election as RIBA Awards Group Chair significant to you?

It’s an honour to take on this role and to continue the work of the two recent chairs, Jo Bacon and Denise Bennetts. The RIBA Awards are the most important in the UK. They create debate nationwide. They highlight today what we mean when we talk about ‘architecture’, who it’s for, and what it can do. As the chair, it’s a rare opportunity to contribute to the decisions of the RIBA Awards Group.

What is the role of the RIBA Awards Group Chair? Why are they important?

The chair works throughout the year with the RIBA Awards team led by Carmen Mateu-Moreno.

For the awards team, it’s a full time job with the help of the regional juries, the RIBA Awards Group and the Stirling Prize jury to whittle over 500 entries nationwide down to one.

This year, as is the case every two years, we also have the International RIBA Awards programme. The process involves a lot of meetings, building visits, thoughtful discussion and debate. Of course, due to the climate crisis, RIBA decided several years ago that it was more appropriate to establish a network of local juries similar to the UK regional juries.

The RIBA Awards Group, which consists of 24 people, combines a diverse group of architects, landscape architects, structural engineers, and sustainability and accessibility experts. The architects represent small and large practice, innovation and tradition in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

My role is to harness the knowledge and experience of all involved in the judging process. I probe for what we hope is a fair outcome which celebrates great buildings, clients, architects and their collaborators.

How is the RIBA Awards Group Chair appointed?

The chair is appointed by a secret ballot submitted by the RIBA Awards Group members.

How will your experience inform the shortlisting process and help RIBA find the best new buildings, in the UK and internationally?

My first Regional jury was in 2003. I subsequently chaired panels in London, East Midlands and Northern Ireland before I was invited to join the RIBA Awards Group in 2019.

I understand how and why the RIBA Awards are perhaps the most rigorous and demanding, but also the most thoughtful and considered. I believe in their ethos.

I’ve worked across sectors and scales for diverse clients, and understand also how budget and procurement influence the outcome almost as much as the design.

My connections and collaborations further afield, in both academic research and practice, help me locate British architecture in a broader context beyond the UK.

What has your Neave Brown Award done for your practice and team? Has the recognition created any new opportunities?

Winning the Neave Brown Award in 2022 for 333 Kingsland Road was fantastic for the studio. And great for our client, consultants and contractor. The association is wonderful after having written about Neave Brown’s work.

RIBA’s decision to establish the award has cemented the renaissance in public and affordable housing in the UK, and highlights just how much the culture of practice has changed in the three decades I’ve been working in the industry.

The award in 2022 also highlighted the potential for hybrid buildings, in this case, a primary school and housing.

What are you most excited about in the RIBA Awards calendar?

Of course, it’s fascinating to see the breadth of work that has been visited for the Regional Awards, as well as assessing the National Awards and drawing up the Stirling Prize shortlist. It’s a huge responsibility and we hope to get it right each year.

It’s fantastic to be given the opportunity to visit buildings that you admire and equally so to discover work you didn’t know and by giving it an award making it much more visible. It’s important.

The panel’s membership and its discussions highlight the diversity of opinion, dwelling on what we mean by architecture. We share points of view and try to build consensus so it’s rarely ever fraught and most illuminating.

In the end, the Stirling Prize ceremony is hugely exciting. Bear in mind, the panel don’t know who any of the winners are until the night.

What are the key milestones people should be looking out for?

The first key milestone is the announcement of the RIBA Regional Awards shortlist in February and the winners in May. The RIBA National Awards are given out in July along with the announcement of the shortlists for the Stephen Lawrence Prize, Neave Brown Award for Housing, RIBA Client of the Year and RIBA Reinvention Award. And then the Stirling Prize shortlist is made public in September 2024, before the winners are announced at the ceremony in October.

From looking at the 2023 award winners, what do you hope for the 2024 projects? Are there any concerns, whether for the planet or impacting specific communities, which you’re wanting these practices to respond to in their designs?

Last year’s Stirling Prize winner, the John Morden Centre, showed a rare level of care for often overlooked members of the community.

The Neave Brown Award winner A House for Artists also pointed to a different kind of affordable home. Both of these projects were relatively modest, as were most of the Stirling Prize shortlisted projects.

It was an important reminder that architecture doesn’t have to be ‘big’ to be exceptional and informative. Both dignified the lives of their occupants, offering lasting social value in their fabric and space, and the lives they touch.

I’m hoping for projects that continue to demonstrate how architects are not only capable of solving the many challenges facing society today, but also inspire us to demand more of our environment and the organisations that shape it.

Sustainable projects that are good for people and the planet are crucial, and we are all searching for answers, supported by scientific research, regulatory commitments and sheer ambition.

But the solutions are many and varied, and continually evolving. Our response to the environment and solutions to social value are two areas that are redefining what we mean by architecture, how and why things are made, and as a result what they look and feel like - ethics influencing aesthetics.

I’m particularly hoping for projects that help people to understand and actively participate in a building’s environmental performance - as part of a holistic approach to sustainability. The Reinvention Award is one to watch, as well as reuse projects at regional, national and Stirling Prize stages.

I’m also looking forward to the unexpected; the projects that reward the scrutiny that an awards process brings – through revealing latent qualities that are not apparent on the surface.

What role does architecture play in creating change and fostering connections?

Buildings form the foundations for a society: they are our homes, and provide a setting for the health service, the education of our children and young people, and the arts. Equally, they are the instruments of commerce.

In each case, the architecture is a catalyst for social interaction and personal endeavour. This is a huge responsibility, equally an amazing opportunity, for architects to help create change and foster connections.

Buildings help build communities, but they can also have a hugely detrimental effect, so architects must take care. Increasingly we discuss inclusion in the design process. We talk about the social value that buildings bring and how they contribute to the wider social infrastructure.

In the UK, 2024 is an election year. The post-war years are a strong reminder of the role that architects and their collaborators can play in building schools, housing, hospitals, and libraries, as well as supporting ambitions of business, charities, academia and research.

It infuses every aspect of society, informed by the work of many disciplines, in the process providing continuity where it’s needed and change where it’s beneficial.

Explore our previous RIBA Award winners and shortlisted buildings.

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