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Stirling Prize 2011 shortlist: What the judges said

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The judges explain why they chose the six finalists for this year’s RIBA Stirling Prize in association with the Architects’ Journal and Benchmark

An Gaelaras, Derry, Northern Ireland by O’Donnell + Tuomey

Contract Value: £2.8 million
Date of completion: September 2009
Gross internal area: 1,980m²

‘An Gaelaras is designed as a cultural centre to promote the use and enjoyment of the Irish language and its culture. Faced with an almost impossible landlocked site in a street of Georgian and Victorian terraces further compromised by a substation that occupies a third of the frontage, the architects have come up with an intriguing and intricate vortex plan that draws the visitor in and up the resulting dynamic multilevel building. With only one external elevation they have created three other facades internally. Lots of architects talk about creating ‘streets’; this one really is. The cranked space, top lit by a large steeply sloping rooflight, it is as if you are in a twisting mediaeval lane in the old city. 

The stairs appear and disappear as the route unfolds like an unpeeling orange

Shops, cafés, bars are all there and lead you through to a theatre. Above teaching and office spaces jostle for views, linked by a series of stairs, bridges and platforms that circle and cross the internal courtyard.  The stairs appear and disappear as the route unfolds like an unpeeling orange, making visitors want to explore, drawing them up both visually and physically to the upper levels. The plan appears haphazard but in fact it fixes places and connections. Herein lies the success of An Gaelaras: in its ability to house all the different functions within spaces that have adequate light and views despite being inside a building with limited aspects and whose only elevations are the front and the fifth one: the roof.

The sense of the building as a sculptural intervention in a conventional street is enhanced by the use of beautiful board-marked concrete.  In scale it respects its neighbours but materially it is very different and speaks of culture as something that is aspirational as well as communal. The concrete adds gravitas and allows for the use of cheaper materials elsewhere: plywood and painted plaster.

An Gaelaras is an innovative and vibrant building that embodies the celebration of Irish language and culture using a dynamic plan form to break down convention and enhance the sense of community. The organisation and the aesthetics complement one another to produce a rigorous piece of architecture that characterises the institution instead of merely reflecting the predilections of the architects.’

The Angel Building, St John Street, Islington, London by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris

Contract Value: £72 million
Date of completion: October 2010
Gross internal area: 33,224m²

‘This speculative office space redefines the sector. An unremarkable 1980s office block has been transformed into a building not only of great elegance and poise but one that contributes positively to life on the streets outside while creating new interiors of great refinement.

A new tailored facade to St John Street sweeps round the corner with the Pentonville Road, connecting with the set-back building line established by a neo-Georgian neighbour and creating a new landscaped strip, designed by J+L Gibbons. The shimmering trees form a foil to the crisp lines of the new facades and help to aerate this busy part of Islington.

An 1980s office block has been transformed into a building not only of great elegance and poise

The new building retains the original structure while infilling an old courtyard and adding new office girth around its perimeter. The additional floor-space (25,000m² net of lettable space instead of 15,000m²) is the key to increasing the building’s rental value, unlocking the development and enabling it to become more intimate with the surrounding streets. Retail units – including a soon-to-open Jamie Oliver restaurant - are incorporated into the ground floor on St John Street.

The entry sequence off St John Street with a publicly accessible café and lounge (the security is provided by smartly dressed people not machines) sets civilised new standards for ways in which the atrium form can be used to animate a commercial ground floor as well as simply getting light in. A finely executed and generous 3 metre grid of in-situ concrete fins and beams (instead of the usual enslaving 1.5 metres) rises up to a gridded toplight. The colour and smooth surface of the concrete is complemented by the smaller scale grid of a delicate terrazzo floor.

A magnificent polished black gestural sculptural piece by McChesney Architects Out of the Strong Came Forth Sweetness adds drama and counterpoint to the Kahnian gravitas of the atrium. 

It is to the huge credit of Derwent London with their architects, AHMM, that they have created such high-end, speculative office space. The building is not only extremely well made and resolved, it offers an idea of how building and working in the city might become a more dignified act.’ 

Evelyn Grace Academy, Shakespeare Road, London by Zaha Hadid Architects

Contract Value: £37.5 million
Date of completion: Summer 2010
Gross internal area: 10,745m²

‘The Evelyn Grace Academy is in the poorest ward in Western Europe. These students are not used to having care, let alone money, lavished on them and they are hugely appreciative that that has happened.  They are also impressed that one of the world’s top architects has been working for them, delivering her first large-scale project in the UK.

This is a design that makes kids run to get into school in the morning

The architects received a complex brief: four schools under a single academy umbrella with the need to express both independence and unity. This is a large school on a small site. Curiously for a school whose speciality is sport, the site lacks any opportunity for significant outdoor sport but the architects have responded with guile and intelligence. The project is distinguished by its planning not its formal expression; its saltire plan solving multiple demands of site and usage in a manner that seems effortless.

The site has two opposing street edges and attracts pupils of both schools from each side. The site is cut broadly in half by a bright red 100 metre sprint track that stretches between the two boundaries. The academy building cuts across the site diagonally and bridges across the running track. The track separates the two schools whose entrances are at the half way point. Outside there are also a multi-use Astroturf pitch and a wildflower garden.

The development forms a ‘Z’ plan. Entrances and terraces are woven into the wings so that pupils are dispersed throughout the site between lessons.  Internally the academy is a good quality and functional modern school, with occasional spatial moments as reminders that this is architecture and not just building, though not in any way at the expense of utility or value. At the outset the architects decided against the atrium that has become a trope in the design of so many academies. Instead of wasting space, and therefore money, in this way, they spend wisely on better designed and lit classroom and wider corridors. Also on the big rooms on two floors at the heart of the plan which can be divided by acoustic screens into dining, teaching, assembly, drama and indoor sport areas.

This is a design that makes kids run to get into school in the morning. What Free School is going to do that?’

Folkwang Museum, Essen, Germany by David Chipperfield Architects

Contract value: confidential
Date of completion: April 2010
Gross internal area: 24,800m²

‘Folkwang Museum is a breathtakingly accomplished design. Located in Essen, in the far-from-rural Ruhr, it extends a beautiful late-1950s designed Miesian museum by the city architects and develops the principles established by the existing structure - much as a jazz musician might riff on the tune of a classic song. The result is a genuinely uplifting, light-filled public space, offering a serene and yet mesmeric mixture of inward-looking courtyards and external views out.

Folkwang Museum is a breathtakingly accomplished design

Its external cladding is of large panels of crushed recycled glass, giving a shimmering translucent finish which has more of the qualities of alabaster than glass. Inside, carefully detailed top-lighting systems in the galleries blend natural and artificial light and are of course capable of being completely blacked out. In the large, flexible temporary exhibition space, they have co-ordinated the lighting grid with a bespoke flexible but highly stable partitioning system than can easily be assembled and remounted to meet the requirements for each show.

David Chipperfield won the international competition organised by the city of Essen in 2007 and the building opened in time for Essen and the Ruhr to become the latest European Cultural Capital. The new building continues the architectural principles of the old one with an ensemble of six structures and four interior courtyards, gardens and corridors.All the galleries and ancillary rooms (old and new) are connected with no changes in level. A large open stairway leads into an extraordinarily spacious new entrance hall, conceived as open interior courtyard with a café, restaurant and bookshop.  There are also a library and reading room, a multi-function hall, art-stores and restoration workshops.

Ever since it re-opened in 1960 - its predecessor having been badly bombed - the museum has been meeting room for the city as well as home to a world-class collection of 19th and 20th century art. Passers-by on the street and even people sitting in their own homes, thanks to the transparency of the building, have been able to admire the art. Chipperfield’s new and impressive building continues that democratic tradition with its under-stated elegance and beauty.’ 


Royal Shakespeare and Swan Theatres, Waterside, Stratford upon Avon by Bennetts Associates Architects

Contract Value: £60 million
Date of completion: November 2010
Gross internal area: 12,000m²

‘The brief called for the retention of Elizabeth Scott’s Grade II*-listed theatre facade and foyer and the rebuilding of the larger theatre to form a new 1,000 seat thrust-stage auditorium, plus new facilities for actors and audience, all within an urban masterplan.

When Scott designed her theatre art deco and cinema were twin design beacons. The former has left a number of rooms which have been lovingly restored and sympathetically fitted. The influence of the latter led to a wide fan-shape auditorium which murdered the actors’ voices. That has gone utterly.  Bennetts’ however retained the rear wall and this move has produced the most successful part of the scheme: the carefully crafted spaces in the voids between the back wall of the old theatre and the back wall of the new theatre, which are used for projection and circulation. A small row of seats remains in place attached to the retained wall to show just how far from the stage the back seats used to be: 27 metres compared with 15 today.

This is a good working theatre, not a precious one

The new thrust stage auditorium has a good feel to it. It is robust, even rough. It has a Globe-like feel to it and an exciting atmosphere.  It is historic in its references, contemporary in its design. And the acoustics are superb. This is a good working theatre, not a precious one.

The tower works both as marker and viewing platform in a flat, low-lying town and brings to the theatre people who never visit the theatre otherwise. But it too makes historic reference.  The old Victorian theatre featured a tower of identical height whose purpose was not viewing but fire-fighting.  Sadly the massive head-tank it contained did not stop the fire that destroyed most of the building and led to Scott’s flawed masterpiece.

One local told the judges, ‘I love the stripped-backness of it and I love idea of reusing so many of the materials of the old theatre.  They’ve re-cycled the boards trodden by Gielgud, Oliver and Richardson in the foyers, you can almost see the blood, the sweat and the tears that went into those old productions.’

The Velodrome, Olympic Park, London by Hopkins Architects Partnership

Contract Value: Confidential
Date of completion: January 2011
Gross internal area: 21,700m²

‘Quietly located to the north of the rapidly emerging Olympic masterplan, the Velodrome exudes an aura of elegance and simplicity. The very form of the building signals the track itself, a continuous, sinuous form that seems to preempt and explain the movement of the event itself.

The building is a consummate exercise in a simple idea, beautifully and efficiently carried out

The building is made of three elements, the roof, the concourse and the plinth. The glazed concourse separates the curve of the larch-clad roof soffit and the concrete and landscaping of the plinth. The plinth contains all the service spaces and the normal legacy entrance. In games mode the lower ground areas will also house concession and hospitality facilities. The stairs and movement from the plinth to the concourse and the arena is modest and low key, the drama of the upper space is firmly guarded. In legacy mode the concourse will support café facilities that will relate to the south, the landscape and the various other cycling trails that form an important part of the landscape approach.

Internally the material palette is extremely well controlled, fine in-situ concrete abounds. The material and visual emphasis is on the beauty and colour of the timber track, a surface that is constantly and lovingly vacuumed and cleaned.

The cable net roof seems to hang in space detached from the ground by the glazed concourse. While the roof is a significant engineering achievement it does not shout its presence from the rooftops, rather the roof, turned through 90 degrees from the track from which it takes its shape, sits low over the bowl, adding drama and focus to the event itself. The arena is an extremely intimate space, given the seating capacity of 6000. No seat is very far away from the track, indeed in places spectators are literally within touching distance of their heroes.

The building is a consummate exercise in a simple idea, beautifully and efficiently carried out. It is a both an enormous credit to the client and the design team that the effect is one of effortlessness and grace. The plan is an exercise in clarity of purpose and rigorous resolution while the form is quite simply, memorable.’

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