AJ editor and 2015 RIBA Stirling Prize judge Rory Olcayto on why the jury unanimously chose AHMM’s school in Wandsworth to win the most prestigious prize in UK architecture
So, we have a winner, and a very worthy one, in Burntwood School by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris. Could there be a more deserving winner? I don’t think so. This is the architect’s fourth attempt to land the biggest prize in British architecture and, to be frank, it’s the best school it has designed. Simply put, Burntwood outshone its competitors on the shortlist because of the sheer range of architectural skills put to good use.
The reuse of existing buildings, the clever artwork and signage strategy, the sculptural quality of the facades, the smart prefabrication approach, the low-energy design, the integration with landscape, the close collaboration with the headteacher: it’s no cliché to say Burntwood is a genuine tour de force. The decision was unanimous too.
AHMM’s Stirling journey has been a long one. It began in 2008, when the admirable Westminster Academy, that year’s favourite, lost out to the Accordia housing project by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios et al. But the level of sophistication on show at Burntwood – the rank outsider this year, incidentally, at least according to William Hill – shows how far the practice has come, after many years slogging away in the school design sector.
For example, where the graphics at Westminster by Morag Myerscough feel applied – almost stuck on – at Burntwood they feel essential to the design, as evidenced by the coloured portals that signpost the entry to each of the school’s pavilions. There is something heartening too about the comfortable homage Burntwood pays to both Breuer (in the facades) and Mies (in the planning) and which was cheerfully admitted to by Paul Monaghan during the jury visit.
Yet the building isn’t hamstrung by these references – this is a civic, people-centred building that has something for architectural fanboys and girls too. That’s not always easy to pull off, but AHMM does it, without breaking sweat. A particular highlight is the covered walkway – it is literally a string of bus shelters clipped together – a kind of pragmatic ad-hocism that gives this project another layer of meaning.
Burntwood has also been referred to – rather wistfully – as the last BSF project, and in some ways its victory is bittersweet. It is unlikely we will see state-school design of this quality unless we see a change in approach to the Priority School Building Programme. Burntwood cost a third more than the PSP budget of £1,400/m². But then who could possibly argue that it is not worth every penny?