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Stirling Prize school ‘should go mainstream’ says Zaha

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Zaha Hadid says Evelyn Grace Academy could be the answer to social unrest and uninspired youth

On Saturday night (1 October) Zaha Hadid Architect’s Evelyn Grace Academy in Brixton pulled off a shock victory over the bookmaker’s runaway favourite, Hopkins’ Olympic Velodrome, to win the RIBA Stirling Prize for the second year in a row. 

Zaha Hadid was out of the country when the announcement was made at Rotherham’s Magna Centre. Talking to the AJ from the US, Hadid said the result sent out a ‘great message’ not only about education projects but architecture across the board.

A ‘surprised and excited’ Hadid spoke of how good quality buildings could solve the social problems which led to this year’s riots, after picking up the most prestigious prize in British architecture. She said: ‘We [as a country] can do better. The quality of this project can and should be pushed through to the mainstream. It should not just be for signature buildings, we should do it at every level.’

The school inspires something

The Iraqi-born architect, who won the prize last year for her MAXXI gallery in Rome, added: ‘. Kids are rioting and then put away and that doesn’t help them, so we need to inspire them to do something else.’

Hadid’s long-term collaborator Patrik Schumacher picked up the award for the four-school academy built in the tough South London neighbourhood. He said: ‘Did we honestly expect to win? No. It was a bit of a surprise.

‘In your imagination when you picture a beautiful place you always picture the beautiful life. And here it is somehow a reality, and that captured the jury.

‘We have also managed to maintain this spark of uplifting “otherness” within a kind of project type which is usually highly constrained.

‘A building also functions through its appearance, because it allows people to identify and sets up distinctions and atmospheres.   ’

He added: ‘The academy is the most satisfying job we have worked on. It has been very rewarding.’

Client view: Peter Walker, principal of the Evelyn Grace Academy

‘The one thing that struck me about the shortlist was that, with the possible exception of An Gaeláras, ours was the only building which is a daily, living building. It is constantly in use for more than 12 hours a day. So it has to function. It is very different from an art gallery, or a velodrome where the space is used occasionally. It is a very tight site and has been very skilfully done.

Inside there is a mixture of extraordinary spaces and a very good level of functionality

The building is designed to complement the specific kind of education we are trying to develop in a small school structure, developing a greater sense of community in young people that our society desperately needs.

The building has a very stunning visual exterior; the lines blow you away. But when you get inside, there is a mixture of extraordinary spaces and a very good level of functionality. The classroom sizes and the layout mean you can handle children, some of whom have very challenging behaviour.

If you asked me, ‘Could you build a visually exciting building more cheaply?’ the answer to that would be yes. But we are talking about a country where people in more disadvantaged areas don’t do very well in education. So weare making a clear statement by placing a building like this in a neighbourhood like Brixton, which has one of the highest rates of violent crime in western Europe. Students have said [this building] shows that somebody cares about their education.

George Ferguson with Stirling Judge Dan Pearson

George Ferguson with RIBA Stirling Prize Judge Dan Pearson (pictured right)

Judge’s view: Dan Pearson, landscape designer and Stirling Prize juror

The strongest schemes percolated to the top early on, and we were left with O’Donnell + Tuomey’s An Gaeláras, Hopkins’ Velodrome and Zaha Hadid’s Evelyn Grace.

Aesthetically, I had not been drawn to either An Gaeláras or the Evelyn Grace Academy. For me, the Velodrome was a more beautiful object.

I didn’t warm to what the academy looked like. I often find Hadid’s [architectural] statements overwhelming and I’m not a fan of such demonstrative architecture; I prefer things to be more subtle.

Putting aesthetics aside, it emerged that the Evelyn Grace scheme was much more thorough and dynamic. It’s important people visit these places – you really have to be there to understand a building properly.

It was clear the academy performed incredibly well. There are some brave and courageous moves that mean the landscape and the building come together and Gross Max’s landscaping responds very well. The running track becomes the main entrance. It is very playful. The building does suffer in some respects from budget cutbacks, such as the music blocks having no skylights.

But the kids told me they were hugely impressed by the architecture. This is clearly driven by them living in it, it wasn’t something they were told to say.

I’ve lived in South London for 20 years and I know how difficult that area is. This is a sanctuary where there is no graffiti and the kids clearly like the environment. In contrast, the Velodrome will have a relatively small number of specific users. If we had seen it when it was even half full of spectators it would have made an enormous difference to how we felt about it. It was very accomplished but it didn’t have the soul.

I was also very taken by An Gaeláras. It feels like a Tardis and is a complete surprise inside. The facade is one of its weakest moments but in a perverse way that makes the inside even more amazing. It is absolutely not the case that Peter Cook had a big influence over the jury. It was a very natural process.


Evelyn Grace is the first school to win the £20,000 Stirling Prize.

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