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Black box: Hepworth and Lyric are the Stirling Prize frontrunners

Stirling Prize jury comments are always revealing, writes Rory Olcayto

When jury member Mark Jones, a former director of the V&A, says there are a couple of buildings ‘we already know won’t win’, we can be fairly sure he’s talking about the Olympic Stadium and New Court.

The Populous stadium proved a fine stage for the London Olympics, but Jones and his colleagues won’t let teary-eyed memories of the ‘Mobot’ and Usain Bolt get in the way of assessing its architectural merit. I doubt even jury chair Nicholas Grimshaw, who you might think would have sympathies for its engineering-led design, would argue insistently in its favour. With its conversion looking more pricey by the day, he would surely question its legacy credentials, which were so essential to shaping its look and feel. It had a fine time in the spotlight this summer, and rightly so, but no clear-headed judge would rate it Britain’s best.

While OMA’s New Court for Rothschild bank plays clever games with the City Of London’s townscape, especially its relationship with the Bank of England, which Rothschild’s directors can look down upon from their ‘skyroom’ – the jury will shy away from rewarding bankers. When Joseph Rykwert called it a symbol of Britain’s oligarchy during AJ’s debate on the RIBA Award winners in July, New Court’s fate was sealed.

Jones goes on to say that there are ‘two that are clear frontrunners’ and choosing between them will be tough. Of the four remaining, the Hepworth Wakefield, the Lyric Theatre in Belfast, the Sainsbury Laboratory for the University of Cambridge, and the Maggie’s Centre in Glasgow, which ones could he mean?

Surely not OMA’s Maggie’s. In some ways it is more accomplished a design than the Dutch firm’s work for Rothschild: it’s more thoroughly architectural (Pringle Brandon’s fit-out for New Court detracts from that project in this regard) and has a more daring plan. The looped corridor layout of Maggie’s gives shifting perspectives on the landscape beyond, but also moves away from the kitchen-centred plan the typology had previously focused on. But a Maggie’s has won before, for the not-as-good Ivan Harbour design in 2009. Jencks’ project doesn’t sit well with the RIBA’s outlook either: architects are not selected through competitive process and they don’t get paid for their work.

Jones can’t mean Stanton Williams’ Sainsbury Lab, even if it sends a message that architecture can affirm the strength of British scientific research. This argument is wrongheaded. Scientific talent is not so much drawn to smooth render and York stone paving as it is to the best equipment and the best scientific minds. CERN, home of the Large Hadron Collider and where staff accommodation is bog standard, is proof. And at five grand a square metre, the architectural achievement at Cambridge looks less convincing.

We can assume Jones’ closing comments, that ‘the Stirling Prize remains important to the public’ and buildings that fight against ‘spirit-sapping’ townscapes to assert the primacy of good architecture are valuable, refer to the Hepworth and Lyric. In this respect, these are his two ‘clear frontrunners’ and yes, ‘choosing between them is going to be difficult. Very. Yet if I was on the jury, I’d vote for O’Donnell + Tuomey’s Lyric. Why? Because John and Sheila’s work deserves to be recognised at the highest level (this is their fourth building to be shortlisted). And because making good public architecture in still-divided Belfast is more important than making good public architecture in Wakefield. When there’s little to split them architecturally, these kind of points matter.

 

 

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