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Stanton Williams are worthy winners for making a building that will last a century

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Read all about it: why the Sainsbury Laboratory won the Stirling Prize, writes Christine Murray

The reaction to the announcement of this year’s Stirling Prize winner in Manchester was mild surprise, but not shock; the applause warm, if subdued.

Most, including the bookies, were expecting David Chipperfield’s Hepworth Wakefield, O’Donnell + Tuomey’s Lyric, or even the Olympic Stadium to win over Stanton and Williams’ elegant Sainsbury Laboratory. But the architects I spoke to on the night felt the laboratory was a deserving winner from a shortlist of potential winners.

It was the national media that was confused by the result, with news reporters unable to explain why the laboratory had won. Coverage was kicked off inauspiciously by the Observer’s Vanessa Thorpe, who announced in a half-page print article in the Sunday paper that the surprise winner was a ‘relatively modest laboratory in Cambridge.’ Now, Stanton Williams’ laboratory is many things, but at a cost of £82 million, modest it’s not.

Unfortunately, the Observer’s line caught on, and was picked up by the Huffington Post, with the descriptive headline: ‘Stirling Prize Winner 2012 is ‘modest’ Sainsbury Laboratory, not Koolhaas, not Olympic Stadium.’ Written by Mallika Rao, the article quoted van Heyningen on the laboratory’s ‘sublime’ architecture, then sneered that Thorpe ‘wasn’t quite so lyrical’, having described the building as ‘modest.’

It’s possible the sentiment behind both articles was a garbled misreading of last week’s BBC Culture Show (available on iPlayer), in which Tom Dyckoff hailed this year’s shortlist as ‘confident and understated’ and ‘anti-ego’. ‘This is architecture without bells and whistles, but with sensitivity and intelligence,’ Dyckoff said.

In other press, the Financial Times’ Edwin Heathcote described the winning laboratory as ‘an expensive building and a privileged piece of architecture, but also an extremely elegant design… a victory for a particular kind of calm, considered and unfussy architecture.’

That sounds about right, but Heathcote’s story of ‘privilege’ stoked another debate. It seems Hepworth Wakefield director Simon Wallis, after leaving the ceremony, blogged about his sour grapes: ‘It was especially hard to lose to a building with an enormous budget (dwarfing ours) in an extremely privileged city, and a project to which the public barely have access.’

In truth, the fabric of both the Hepworth and Sainsbury buildings cost around £5,000 per square metre. Nevertheless, the BBC ran the story: ‘Hepworth Wakefield boss bemoans losing Stirling Prize’ with an emphasis on Wallis’ call for more judges from the north, suggesting the Hepworth had fallen victim to regional prejudices. (Note to Wallis, both Stanton Williams and David Chipperfield’s offices are in London.

In truth, I was comforted a little by the dumbness of the hullabaloo, which proved the architectural press and real architecture critics still have a place in providing intelligent journalism to the profession. But I was disappointed by another lost opportunity to explain the value of good architecture to the public. Stanton Williams are worthy winners for making a building that will last a century or more - surely not a difficult message to communicate.

As for our view of the project, over a year ago, the AJ’s Felix Mara wrote of Sainsbury (AJ 21.07.11): ‘It would be easy to say that Stanton Williams didn’t take risks, but only if you failed to imagine how the detailed design might have turned out in less capable hands. You might ask for more originality; but then, as Dennis and Elizabeth De Witt observed, the world is full of unique architectural monstrosities. In its own, quiet way, the Sainsbury Laboratory slowly expands the limits of what is possible. If this is polite Modernism, long may it thrive.’

christine.murray@emap.com

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