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RIBA Awards 2019 verdict: A good year for housing

Index rob riba awards 190627
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Rob Wilson analyses this year’s 54 winning projects, picking out the trends, the buildings that have missed the cut – and one he thinks shouldn’t be there – as well as predicting what will make the Stirling Prize shortlist

It’s tempting to analyse the rich mix of schemes that make up the RIBA National Awards as a telling snapshot of now – saying something about the state we are in, not just architecturally but also socially, economically, even politically. They can, of course, hardly be that, given buildings eligible for this year’s awards could have been completed as far back as November 2016. Many entries are also the culmination of projects initiated more than a decade ago. 

Nevertheless, it’s still interesting to try and read the tea leaves, and this year’s full list suggests some healthy and sometimes surprising trends in different sectors.

Thus housing – including residential mixed-use – makes up the largest category by entry number. Some of these are decent city-making schemes – from Groupwork’s beautiful bespoke cluster of flats at 168 Upper Street to AHMM’s impressive Television Centre, although both are pretty high-end metropolitan.

Infrastructure also has a great showing for once, particularly in the transport sector

But there’s also a good number of more affordable schemes too – models that could be widely applicable solutions to the chronic lack of well-considered new homes. These include Mole’s Marmalade Lane cohousing and the Norwich Council-led social housing of Goldsmith Street, designed by Mikhail Riches with Cathy Hawley.

Infrastructure also has a great showing for once, particularly in the transport sector: from the impressive clarity Grimshaw has brought to its retrofit of London Bridge, to Hall McKnight’s sculpted Belfast transport hub, a big civic gesture on a small scale. 

Ctc transport hub donal mccann crop

Ctc transport hub donal mccann crop

Source: Donal McCann

Colin Connect Transport Hub and Colin Town Square by Hall McKnight

An unexpected trend is the profusion of new or renewed performance spaces, such as Haworth Tompkins’ Battersea Arts Centre and Feilden Clegg Bradley’s Alexandra Palace, reflective perhaps of a rekindled public appetite for communal live performance in the digital age.

And with regard to sustainability, it’s in the field of retrofit that many of the most skilled, subtle and impressive projects are being seen. Thus it’s disappointing, given the recent inventiveness of the workplace sector, particularly in the field of retrofit, that projects such as Hawkins\Brown’s Here East are missing from these awards. Indeed both the winning workplace projects are new build – albeit impressive ones from Eric Parry Architects and Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners. Perhaps it’s some subconscious reaction to workplace projects after last year’s controversial Stirling win by the Bloomberg building. 

Another more subdued sector this year is higher education, with the gravy train of good new student buildings seemingly stalled – except, as always, in Oxbridge.

Cambridge has the most concentrated number of winners,  three of which recognise the university’s ambitious Eddington scheme

The regional spread this year holds fewer surprises than the sectoral. It’s a bit same old same old. In terms of nations and regions, England dominates disproportionately, with the annual alternating no-show of projects from either Northern Ireland or Wales continuing – Wales getting nul points this year. 

The winning buildings are further heavily skewed to the South East – 39 of the 54. Of these, 23 are in London, but per head of population, Cambridge has the most concentrated number of winners: eight out of the nine in the RIBA East region, with three of these recognising the quality of the university’s hugely ambitious Eddington scheme.

Eddington, lot 1, no 3388 jack hobhouse pressimage 2

Eddington, lot 1, no 3388 jack hobhouse pressimage 2


Eddington, Lot 1, North West Cambridge by WilkinsonEyre with Mole Architects

Key projects that surprisingly failed to make the cut, along with Here East, include Colville Estate and Hoxton Press by Karakusevic Carson Architects and David Chipperfield Architects and Northampton International Academy by Architecture Initiative. And why neither of the Peter Barber schemes? Perhaps they are now so ubiquitously good, it’s difficult to pick one out. Assemble’s Goldsmiths Gallery is also notable by its absence, not even receiving a regional award, while the disappointing V&A Dundee surely only picked up a prize because it would have been the elephant in the room if left out. 

And top tips for the Stirling Prize? Runners and riders include Marmalade Lane; Goldsmith Street; Hall McKnight’s transport hub; Peter Zumthor’s Secular Retreat delivered by Mole; Witherford Watson Mann’s Nevill Holt Opera; and Adam Richards’ Nithurst Farm – the latter taking the stylistic march of the arch to new levels. But perhaps on a green tip, a retrofit will triumph this year – London Bridge Station or Battersea Arts Centre. If pushed, though, I’d go for AECOM’s Eddington masterplan winning the Stirling – ambitious, green and long term.  

Riba regional graph

Riba regional graph



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