Glass reviews the shortlist for Britain’s most prestigious architectural prize
Last weekend the shortlist for British architecture’s most prestigious award, The Stirling Prize, was published. This annual prize, which is named after architect James Stirling, is awarded annually by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) for the building which has made the greatest contribution to British architecture in the past year. Founded in 1996, past winners of the award have included Foster’s Gherkin and Richard Rogers’ Barajas Airport Terminal in Madrid. For the past two years, the award has been scooped by Zaha Hadid – designer of the glamorous (and steel-guzzling) aquatics centre for the London Games; in 2010 for Maxxi, Rome's National Museum for 20th Century Arts; and last year for the Evelyne Grace Academy, a school in London’s Brixton.
This year’s line-up is slightly less glamorous than it has been, but nevertheless comprises a very beautiful and thoughtful group of buildings, perhaps reflective of the austere climate in which they were conceived. Below is Glass’ round-up of the six potential winners. 1. The Olympic Stadium by Populous Designed by mega-sports architects, Populous, the Olympic Stadium has divided its critics. In reference to its simplicity and demountability, one critic dismissed it as an “Ikea stadium”. Glass, however, considers this statement a compliment, highlighting the architect’s light and sensible approach. For we are indeed living through hard times, both financially and in terms of the world's resources and a stadium which achieves all of the function of its Chinese counterpart the Birdsnes', using just 10 per cent of the steel, ticks every box in our efficiency book. It is representative of the sustainable approach which has been taken by organisers and designers of the Games across the board (Zaha's pool withstanding) and its architects should be congratulated for their innovative and clever use of resources.
And whilst it may not be quite as breathtaking as the Birdsnest, it is elegant in its simplicity and already becoming something of an icon in its own right. After the Games, the stadium will remain in situ, although for what use remains in discussion, as does its size – since more than half of the stadium is capable of being taken apart, shipped and reconstructed elsewhere – flatpack style. There is a reason we all shop at Ikea – it delivers great style at an affordable price and can be taken anywhere. We love this about Ikea and we love the Olympic Stadium for the same reason. 2. New Court by OMA with Allies and Morrison The House of Rothschild’s London address has remained the same since 1809, with this latest iteration of their HQ designed by a somewhat unlikely collaboration between Dutch visionary architect Rem Koolhaus’ OMA and British Executive Architects, Allies and Morrison – masters of context and detail. This union has delivered an elegant, thoughtful and comparatively understated building into London’s Square Mile. One of the most significant and admirable qualities of this building is the small contribution it makes to the public realm: creating, via its fully glazed reception, a visual link to the church of St Stephen Walbrook, which had been blocked by previous buildings on the site since the 18th Century. A “cube with annexes”, topped off with a magnificent “sky pavilion” which looks down over its neighbours, this bold design is classic OMA – while the immaculately detailed finishing is trademark Allies and Morrison.
This very successful partnership is now being carried into a second project - the redevelopment of the former Commonwealth Institute and its environs, in Kensington. Whilst many consider it unlikely for a commercial project owned by bankers to be awarded the Stirling, others have cited Zaha's double-whammy as proof that the judges are only concerned with good design and not politics. Watch. This. Space. 3. The Hepworth by David Chipperfield Architects The Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield, named after the artist Barbara who was born in the town, is immediately recognisable as a Chipperfield building. Like much of the practice’s work, it simultaneously manages to achieve a monolithic presence and a light elegant touch. Perhaps it is the delicate colour of the concrete, or the manner in which the scale of the building is broken down into a series of elements, which gives this building a serene and graceful presence which belies its solid concrete skin.
A simple concept lies behind the building: each of the volumes which make up the whole contains a gallery, each with a differently angled ceiling and roof – function dictates form. The interior language is neutral and light, allowing artworks to be the central focus. Open doorways throughout the building allow visitors tempting peeks into the next gallery space.
4. The Sainsbury Laboratory by Stanton Williams The backdrop of the University of Cambridge's Botanic Gardens, coupled with the legacy of a city and a university who have been patronising exquisite architecture for the last 800-plus years, meant that this laboratory project proposed no small challenge to Stanton Williams. They have met it, however, with gusto, producing a light, bright and appealing building which manages to capture the serenity of its garden setting.
Housing research laboratories and their associated support areas, the Sainsbury Laboratory also contains the University’s Herbarium, meeting rooms, an auditorium, social spaces, and upgraded ancillary areas for Botanic Garden staff, plus a new public café. Key to the building’s concept is its relationship with the Botanic garden space – a working research tool established in 1831, which is still very much in use by occupants of the building.
The solid materials used on the building’s facade – limestone and in-situ concrete – coupled with the rhythmic pattern of the fenestration give the building a feeling of endurance and longevity, fitting for its university and research function: A serious building with a serious scientific purpose.
The building contrasts with the new Central Saint Martins campus building at Kings Cross – also completed by the practice this year (and Glass’ favourite recent building). Although longlisted, this project which transforms a Grade II Listed granary and railway sheds to a spacious haven for art, did not make the final cut. The two buildings, however, are demonstrative of the quality and variety of Stanton Williams’ work. 5. Maggie's Centre, Glasgow by OMA The second of OMA’s buildings in the shortlist, The Maggie’s Centre in Glasgow, serves a very different function to Rothschild’s London pad. The first Maggie’s Centre was completed in 1996, following the death of Maggie Keswick Jencks, who died of cancer in 1995. Each designed by a prolific architect, the Maggie’s Centres provide a drop-in centre for cancer sufferers and their families, away from the institutional environment of the hospitals where they receive their treatment. Their design has given many architects a chance to flex their wings on what is simultaneously a simple and complex task – that of providing shelter and comfort to those at their lowest ebb.
OMA’s design takes the form of a ring of rooms around a landscaped courtyard space. Rooms are interconnected, flowing into one another, avoiding hospital-like corridors or lonely isolated rooms. Glazing provides connectivity to both the courtyard on the inside and the woodland setting, allowing the simplest form of comfort and healing – nature – to do its work. A domestic scale provides a home-from-home for visitors. 6. The Lyric Theatre by O’Donnell + Tuomey The Lyric Theatre replaces an existing theatre on the same site in Belfast which has seen the likes of Liam Neeson, Ciaran Hinds and Adrian Dunbar cut their theatrical cloth. No longer large enough or fit for purpose, a competition for the design of a new theatre was launched, won by Dublin Architectural practice O’Donnell + Tuomey. The new Lyric is a rich and joyous celebration of materials, texture and geometric form. Constructed in Belfast Brick, a glorious red brick found in housing across the city, the building stands proud on its riverside frontage, whilst marrying beautifully in both form and scale with the domestic grid of streets behind it.
The building comprises three distinct closed spaces: the theatre, a studio and a rehearsal space; with the more open and light public foyers, bars and circulation spaces wrapping around these forms. The theatre itself is clad in warm and opulent panels of Iroko timber, set at differing angles. The floor is of the same timber, creating a warm, enclosed, box-like feeling which gives the audience a more intimate experience.