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Stirling Prize shortlist: the critics react

Four of the UK’s top architecture critics give their views on this year’s Stirling Prize shortlist

Joseph Rykwert, critic

Joseph Rykwert

Developers and investors promote the bulk of building in Britain. Of the six candidates for the Stirling Prize, only one was commissioned by a developer however (and I have even been told that some shy away from design of over-high quality, since the building risks being listed); the sole one on the Stirling list is the Shard,  the tallest building in the country, and something of a deviant anyway.

Of the others, two are civic buildings, two are academic commissions and one is an Olympic sports centre. That seems a fair reflection on the way the patronage of architectural quality is distributed round the country. How will the judges rate them? I certainly hope that courage will be one of the criteria.

I hope that courage will be one of the judges criteria

But courage comes in different forms – there is the brute kind of seeing how high you can go, and the more subtle variety, shown by O’Donnell + Tuomey, who devised a brilliant envelope by dovetailing discordant functions on an awkward site; or yet Mecanoo’s bold assertion of surface by pattern. Or maybe they will prefer the figural urbanity of Haworth Tompkins, who create a structure of rescued original materials but make the street facade into a display of local worthies – or they may yet prefer the very sober but assured extension of the Manchester School of Art. For once, I can sympathize with the judges’ difficulties.

Favourite: undecided

Jay Merrick, architecture critic, The Independent

Jay Merrick

Three Goliaths, three Davids. A civil split, surely, between the marketable allure of deliberately iconic buildings and the virtues of admirable, relatively everyday architecture.

Yet I suspect the ‘safety’ and ‘obviousness’ of the selections are false. Mecanoo’s Birmingham Library, Hadid’s London Aquatics Centre, Piano’s glinting Shard. Badda-bing! Except that the library has been criticised from within, as it were; the pools – cellulitic exterior, sublimely beautiful interiors – need special blue film on the windows during televised events; and the Shard is a bolt-on brandmark for the City of London. 

Several practices must have been a whisker away from making the King Kong segment of the shortlist. John McAslan might feel that his King’s Cross transformation is a more complete display of transport hubbery than the Shard. And Hopkins must be disappointed that Brent Civic Centre, a genuine innovation in local authority building design, didn’t make this part of the cut.

There can be no dispute about the inclusion of Haworth Tompkins’ Everyman Theatre

The non-iconic finalists are particularly interesting. There can be no dispute about the inclusion of Haworth Tompkins’ Everyman Theatre in Liverpool, an excellent demonstration of the practice’s abilities in form-making, surfaces, and profoundly satisfying modulations of internal space and atmosphere.

The selection of FCB Studios’ tautly composed Manchester School of Art is certainly deserved, but there must have been intense competition for this place in the shortlist. AHMM may think its Chobham Academy is more worthy; ditto Maccreanor Lavington and its fastidiously elegant Saxon Court and Roseberry Mansions.     

The winner, for me, is O’Donnell + Tuomey’s Saw Swee Hock Student Centre. The geometric and material response to a dreadfully tight lacuna site is not just bold, it absolutely works, both as a Soane-meets-Expressionist urban sculpture, and programmatically. The visual power of the exterior is, if anything, surpassed by the vivid human energies generated within this 21st century Academic Cabinet of Dr Caligari.

Favourite O’Donnell + Tuomey’s Saw Swee Hock Student Centre

Ellis Woodman, critic-at-large, The AJ

Ellis Woodman

The announcement of the Stirling Prize shortlist is invariably greeted by wails of regret for overlooked candidates and this year I must voice some grievance on behalf of Duggan Morris’s Ortus Learning Centre and Caruso St John’s remodelling of Tate Britain.  However, controversy should surely focus not on those buildings that have been omitted but on two that have made the grade. Constructed in a part of London that presents no obvious need for a structure of such exceptional height the Shard speaks to many of us only of the city’s failure to direct corporate interests towards a considered urban outcome. Meanwhile, the objections to Birmingham Library are more squarely architectural, turning on Mecanoo’s woeful attempts to doll up vast swathes of floor-to-ceiling glazing with visually inert and functionally redundant aluminium hoops. FCB Studios and Haworth Tompkins’ entries are altogether stronger but – if past recipients are anything to go by – too unassuming to win. 

FCB Studios and Haworth Tompkins’ entries are too unassuming to win

Hadid’s is a more obvious contender, but can the jury really overlook the building’s eye-watering cost and structural inefficiency? No, ultimately there is the only one horse in this race. O’Donnell + Tuomey has been shortlisted four times previously but the Saw Swee Hock Student Centre is its strongest entry to date – a beautifully built public building designed in a language that is highly individual and deployed with fantastic conviction. It will be a worthy winner.

Favourite O’Donnell + Tuomey’s Saw Swee Hock Student Centre

Catherine Slessor, editor, The Architectural Review

Cathy Slessor

If last year had the sense of a set of introverted guests hiding in the kitchen at the Stirling party, this year it’s back to the waving and smiling business with an array of pushy personalities preening fit to bust at the cocktail hour. Decisively leading the charge is The Shard, Europe’s tallest building, which I can actually see from my desk in the AR’s Shoreditch eyrie. As an utterly remorseless extrusion of capital it has very little to do with architecture, but as an urban signifier intruding balefully on every horizon like the Eye of Sauron it has no equal. Now shorn of its ungainly Olympic water wings, Zaha Hadid’s Aquatics Centre is now brilliantly reincarnated as Stratford’s local pool, but a sense of déjà vu and post-Games ennui prevails. Two years ago it would have been different. Mecanoo’s library is essentially a clever modern mashrabiya – but are facade mechanics enough at this level? Its fiddly filigree is all a bit Blanche DuBois when compared with the doughty brick heavyweights of O’Donnell + Tuomey’s student centre for the LSE and Haworth Tompkins’ gutsy and poetic Liverpool Everyman. And though they triumphed in 2008, with their well-mannered Accordia housing, Fielden Clegg Bradley is probably this year’s dark horse. Who will win – Zaha Hadid, despite the déjà vu. Who should win – Haworth Tompkins. 

Favourite Zaha Hadid’s Olympic Aquatics Centre

Readers' comments (5)

  • What is the point of the famous becoming more famous? This might be worthy of some debate. It seems as if the 'zeitgeist' is defined by senior critics who may have quit really thinking long ago. And there are no more Stirlings anyway.

    Does anyone out there get my drift?
    Perry Cofield, USA

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  • Reasonable shortlist and an excellent panel of judges, but have the buildings had a chance to prove themselves? Given the dire state of most building in the UK does this shortlist send a message to the commissioning and design community?Time only will tell.

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  • I agree with cathy

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    I agree with Ellis ;-) / :-((

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  • too Joe, Ortus looks like a stunning project.

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