Felix Mara introduces the 2014 RIBA Awards
Forget politics, let’s get passionate about architecture,’ this year’s RIBA National and EU Awards seem to be saying. The judges’ citations are not short on praise for ecological merit, responsibly low-cost profiles for certain types of work, catalysts for regeneration and big urban ideas. But, whether or not you buy architecture as an art which is political, and even if it were possible to absolve individual guilt for past negligence, social concerns this year are eclipsed by the sheer quality and creative passion of the award‑winners.
There is an unusually hefty phalanx of respectable blockbusters, which includes McAslan + Partners’ urbanistic King’s Cross Station redevelopment, Renzo Piano Building Workshop’s regal, enigmatic London Bridge Tower (The Shard, pictured), Hopkins Architects’ commanding Brent Civic Centre and O’Donnell + Tuomey’s uniquely Irish marriage of monument and text in its LSE student centre. There are also moments of pure tectonic ecstasy, such as David Chipperfield Architects’ historicising One Pancras Square Grecian commercial palazzo, which is hauntingly rational, despite its cosmetic cast iron columns; Zaha Hadid Architects’ formally sublime and technically virtuosic London Aquatics Centre; and Foster + Partners’ other-worldly Marseille Vieux Port (pictured), like a chance encounter between Mies van der Rohe and Superstudio. This passion for quality and craftsmanship, generally expressed in sober rectilinear geometry, filters through to every level, from Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands’ JW3 and Chipperfield’s ode to concrete in Berlin’s Joachimstrasse to subtle work in more low-key traditional idioms and retrofits, such as Long & Kentish’s featherlight-touch Porthmeor Artists Studios and Fishermen’s Cellars.
No healthcare projects won National Awards this year, and less than half as many schools as in 2013; nor was the recent escalation in housing work matched by recognition of this building type.
On the other hand, nearly a third of the award-winners are public projects. So the political with a small ‘p’, or, as I prefer to call it, social merit, may yet be recognised in this year’s Stirling shortlist, which will surely be fiendishly difficult to agree. There’s also a 25 per cent increase in the proportion of London projects in this year’s list of National Awards, which is a frank register of where the quality is.
The judges’ citations, which accompany the photographs of each project, are long on positive appreciation and short on judicious faint praise. As in previous years, we’ve grouped the award winners according to use groups. We have fewer use types this year: some earned little or no recognition by the judges and, in order to beef up housing, we’ve added two student accommodation projects that ordinarily would have been classed as ‘campus’. The introductions to the sections for each use type have been written by authorities in these areas and this year the EU Award winners are grouped in a separate section.