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RIBA National Awards: architectural design is in rude health

Dujardin mews 1535 mark hadden pressimage 4
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What are the trends in this year’s 49 winning projects? And which ones might feature on the Stirling Prize shortlist? Rob Wilson gives an overview

The breadth and quality of winning buildings in the RIBA National Awards this year show the continued rude health of architectural design across the UK – refreshing given the seemingly rudderless, conflicted condition of the country at large. 

One could take issue with the exact final cut. Where, for example, is Hawkins\Brown’s clever retrofit unlocking of the Bartlett? Though other high-profile omissions, such as John Pawson’s rather claustrophobic conversion of the Commonwealth Institute into the Design Museum, are less surprising. But in general the tenor of projects is a fine roll-call of pitch-perfect projects across sectors. 

There is Karakusevic Carson Architects’ boldly reworked social housing at Dujardin Mews (pictured above); the urbane confidence and ambition of Reiach and Hall’s City Campus at the City of Glasgow College; the finely pitched and beautifully worked heritage insertion by Wright & Wright at Oxford’s Magdalen College; glorious space-making in 6A’s Juergen Teller studio; and effortless less-is-more placemaking by dRMM at Hastings Pier

Fcbstudios bedales school of art and design building hufton crow 1

Fcbstudios bedales school of art and design building hufton crow 1

Source: Hufton + Crow

Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios’ Bedales School Art and Design Building

The 49 projects also show the depth of talent around in the UK at the moment at all scales of practice. There are AJ100 firms at the top of their game, such as Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios and AHMM, including a brace of projects apiece from Eric Parry and WilkinsonEyre. But the much smaller Manchester-based practice Stephenson Studio also has two winning schemes, and is part of a fairly wide regional spread of practices that includes not only many smaller, newer firms but ones that focus on the rural rather than the urban, such as Ann Nisbet Studio, Macdonald Wright Architects and Rural Office for Architecture.

This depth of expertise is matched too by that of the structural engineers they work with, so key to the production of sophisticated, life-affirming architecture. And while Arup, Alan Baxter, BuroHappold and Ramboll were the engineers on more than one scheme, it is Price & Myers, engineer on eight of the winning schemes, that stands out. Perhaps there should be a prize for outstanding engineering contribution?

The dearth of public-sector clients mirrors the continuing austerity-squeeze in government spending

The runes of architectural culture do of course reflect the wider climate and changes in society, and even act as bellwether of trends and shifts in the way we live. So the dearth of public-sector clients mirrors the continuing austerity-squeeze in government spending. Exceptions to this are AHMM’s New Scotland Yard HQ for the Metropolitan Police – a bold, confident reworking of an existing shell – and Invisible Studio’s thoughtful Wolfson Tree Management Centre in Tetbury for the Forestry Commission. Both, however, answer relatively unusual briefs at either end of the budget scale, and only serve to show up the glaring lack of ‘traditional’ large public service orientated projects, with state schools and hospitals particularly notable by their absence.

2017.06.21 riba award winners 2017

2017.06.21 riba award winners 2017

Regionally there’s still a clear out-of‑kilter ‘London-weighting’ to the picture, with close to a third of the projects  – 15 of the 49 – in the capital. Meanwhile the absence of any winning projects in Wales persists, continuing to reflect, if nothing else, the massive regional inbalances of the economy. 

As such, the sheer brio of development in ‘Northern Powerhouse’ cities at the moment, particularly Manchester, is evidenced by three winning projects in that city. But it’s Glasgow that continues to impress, nurturing a civic renaissance through enlightened public patronage – here with clients Glasgow City College and the National Theatre of Scotland – and the building of societal infrastructure. This is so vital to successfully embedding growth and change in cities, if in this case one allied clearly to a specific political landscape.

2017.06.21 riba award winner 2013 17

2017.06.21 riba award winner 2013 17

In terms of sectors, the UK obsession with houses – and of course house prices – remains evident in the domestic schemes that figure. There are the necessary crop of indulgent or ideal villas – playgrounds for experimentation in form and material – such as the extraordinary and idiosyncratic Caring Wood. But these are joined by equally satisfying urban schemes, defined by and making magic from tight sites and budgets – notably No 49 by 31/44 Architects. But most significant is the sheer number of thoughtful iterations on housing, leveraging new ways to deliver homes within the constraints of the market model – both urban and suburban – in schemes such as Silchester in London by Haworth Tompkins, and Carrowbreck Meadow in Norwich by Hamson Barron Smith. The latter, as well as the Dujardin Mews scheme mentioned earlier, are also witness to the most significant growth in council involvement in housing provision since the 1970s.  

 It’s Glasgow that continues to impress, nurturing a civic renaissance through enlightened public patronage

Noticeable too is the rise in the number of winning workplace sector schemes, evidencing perhaps how the live/work balance has shifted and become even more muddied by the digital. As much care and thought is now lavished on workplace interiors as on multifunctional living spaces in domestic projects. 

No 49 1193 anna stathaki pressimage 1

No 49 1193 anna stathaki pressimage 1

Source: Anna Stathaki

No 49 by 31/44 Architects

Tips for the future? While healthcare projects are noticeably thin on the ground this year, expect an emphasis on space and light itself as a key part in the healing process – as exemplified by the Maggie’s Centres – to inform the sector more widely, particularly with more specialist facilities, such as for dementia care, coming on stream. And while there is just one infrastructure sector project this year, Blackburn Meadows Biomass, and not a single transport project, this scheme shows what a beneficial role architects play when involved in such a key area of the built environment. With Crossrail among several major infrastructure projects completing over the next few years, let’s hope to see more winning architecture schemes in the future raising the design bar.

And pointers to the 2017 RIBA Stirling Prize? The Bedales Art and Design Building by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, New Scotland Yard by AHMM, Juergen Teller Studio by 6A Architects; Dujardin Mews by Karakusevic Carson Architects with Maccreanor Lavington and No 49 by 31/44 Architects should all be hot favourites for the shortlist, as well as my pick for the 2017 Stirling Prize winner: Glasgow City Campus by Reiach and Hall and Michael Laird Architects. Bring it on.

The Architects’ Journal is proud to be the professional media partner for the RIBA National Awards and the RIBA Stirling Prize

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