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RIBA Stirling Prize 2015: the critics choose their favourites


Leading architecture critics choose their favourite projects on the 2015 Stirling Prize shortlist

Edwin Heathcote, architectural critic for The Financial Times

Edwin Heathcote

A social housing block, a university scheme, a cancer care centre in Scotland, a south London girls’ school and a museum in the North? OK there’s also Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners’ Neo Bankside to remind us how money is driving housing as asset class rather than home, but this still sounds a bit of a dream shortlist.

Niall McLaughlin’s Darbishire Place is the kind of fine public housing that needs to be built across the country if the housing crisis is ever going to be addressed. It evokes both Peabody’s historic brick blocks and a more Modernist inter-war vein. A social housing scheme has never won the Stirling. What message would a victory send?

Heneghan Peng’s Greenwich University scheme is a competent piece of urban infill, elegantly maintaining the historic grain but not doing much more. MUMA’s Whitworth Museum extension is outstanding – self-effacing and deceptively simple, existing for the museum rather than for its own purposes. Reiach and Hall’s Maggie’s Centre is also excellent; a modest, beautifully crafted structure, which seems to disdain the architectural acrobatics of many recent Maggie’s Centres. 

But Burntwood Girls School is the biggest surprise for me. I haven’t always been kind about AHMM’s work, but here it seems to have hit its stride. This is a serious civic building of depth and sophistication. It recalls some of the very fine post-war British schools in its language and its generous outdoor spaces.

How do you choose between social housing and a fine school?  I’d be happy for four out of six to win, which is a better average than I ever remember.  

Catherine Slessor, architectural writer and former editor of The Architectural Review

Cathy Slessor

Given the public opprobrium being heaped on architects for their ivory tower ways and role as supine handmaidens of toxic gentrification, you do have to wonder what goes on in the mink-lined bunker of Portland Place these days.

Though the Stirling shortlist features social housing (Niall McLaughlin), two educational projects (AHMM and Heneghan Peng), a Maggie’s Centre (Reiach and Hall) and regional culture, represented by the Whitworth (MUMA), the obvious gnat in the yogurt is Neo Bankside, its cross-gartered silos of stratospherically priced non-dom accom depressingly emblematic of how London is turning into a coarser version of Paris (unaffordable core, atomised banlieus).

Civic considerations aside, Neo is not even aesthetically compelling. Underscored by the sense of a once-great practice (Rogers et al) on cruise control, exhausted High-Tech tropes are tamely reprised and the scale is oppressive, the silos looming balefully over a neighbouring group of almshouses.

There are more deserving projects: Architecture 00’s Foundry, for instance, which transforms a former shoe polish factory into a social justice centre on a fraction of Neo’s engorged £132 million budget. The High-Tech tyrannosaurus that bestrode British architecture for decades is now truly extinct, and the other contenders huddle warily around this Brobdingnagian fossil, like curious diplodocuses, all exhibiting modesty, placidity and a certain truthfulness to materials and archetypes.

The Maggie’s reworks the contemplative hortus conclusus, AHMM augments a Leslie Martin school with Euclidean pavilions, while Heneghan Peng explores the notion of the internal street to create a lively armature for learning. MUMA’s proto-industrial  Whitworth is nicely deferential to Victorian and Modernist predecessors, and finally, Niall McLaughlin adds to a Peabody Estate with civility and generosity, thoughtfully reconceptualising the mansion block and showing what social housing in London could be. For this alone, he should win. Frankly, ABN (Anything But Neo). 

Sean Griffiths, professor of architecture, University of Westminster and former director of FAT

Sean Griffiths

I am reminded of the wonderful, if unintentionally funny, line in Spirit of Radio by Rush: ‘But glittering prizes and endless compromises. shatter the illusion of integrity - yeah!’

It’s not that any of those elevated here lack integrity, or that architecture, in the words of the man after whom the glittering prize is named, can be anything other than, ‘the art of compromise’, but one cannot help but note that the Stirling Prize has much in common with the Brit Awards and the Oscars.

It is a celebration of the current mainstream, a round up of the usual suspects with the odd wild card thrown in. It rewards well-crafted, nice buildings with good materials by skilled designers.

But, like Oscar winners, few of those that win end up being revered for trailblazing new developments within our art in the longer run. And although an uncontested song and dance is made about environmental standards, there are no exclusions on the basis of social impact, hence the seemingly mandatory place at the table for those practices designing Zone 1 apartments for ‘investors’ and whose directors take their seats in the House of Lords.

In a further echo of the Oscars, guilt is suitably assuaged by the inclusion of politically acceptable types. There is the obligatory Maggie’s Centre. As a counterweight to receptacles for international wealth, there is an affordable housing block by Niall McLaughlin, included one suspects, for its social worth - notwithstanding its modestly elegant design - and for the fact that the architect’s dazzling entry somehow failed to win in 2013 (Bishop Edward King Chapel).

What is also notable is the uniformity of the aesthetic. Like the Labour Party, it seems the profession likes its comfort zone.

As usual, the wild card should - but probably won’t - win. MUMA’s addition to Manchester’s Whitworth Gallery is a building open to the public and through its skillful and elegant interaction between old and new, it wears its democratic credentials beautifully. I also happen to know that it was done for a budget that probably wouldn’t buy you a one bed flat in Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners’ Neo Bankside. Let’s hope I haven’t given it the kiss of death.

Owen Pritchard, technical editor, Architects’ Journal

Owen Pritchard

It’s notable that four of the six projects on the shortlist are in London, when only 14 of the 37 on the longlist were in the capital. The two non-London projects, Maggie’s Lanarkshire and the Whitworth, are designed by Stirling shortlist newcomers. The shortlist covers the six most readily identifiable areas in which architects work.

Lanarkshire is fourth Maggie’s Centre to appear on the shortlist since 1997, underlining what an important patron of architecture the charity continues to be. Reiach and Hall’s design has a clear spatial diagram that provides a sequence of intimate spaces, but the perimeter wall makes this an introverted building, dislocated from its context.

In Greenwich, Heneghan Peng provided a campus that addresses its World Heritage site without resorting to pastiche, the deep plan is cleverly divided with courtyards that mix formal and informal learning spaces.

AHMM’s Burntwood School has a healthy dose of nostalgia, drawing influence from 1950/60s educational projects. At a time when budgets for this type of building are mean and the wreckage of BSF is still being examined, it’s a reminder that architects can design practical and inspirational spaces for educating children.

Neo Bankside is the anomaly on the list – a £132m glass and steel tower on a list of brick and masonry. It’s everything you would expect from RSHP –assured, impeccably detailed and a celebration of structure. Darbishire place by Niall Mclaughlan architects combines its social purpose with a great consideration to material and form. Should the judges wish to make a statement about the role architects can play in solving the housing crisis they needn’t look any further. Darbishire Place cost over £1000 less per square metre than Neo Bankside.

The Whitworth by MUMA is a labour of love that has design at the heart of every decision made in its realisation. It provides challenging new spaces for art while identifying and recognising the best aspects of the existing building. The character of the new wings and the existing compliment each other. It’s sustainability credentials are impeccable and at £15m its excellent value. 




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