Rob Wilson analyses this year’s 49 winners, over half of which are in the capital
Reading the runes of the RIBA National Awards– the selection and spread of projects across sectors, regions and practices – is an inexact art. But, while the overall sweep of selected projects often contains an arguable choice or a surprising absence or two, it usually presents few complete surprises. This year is no exception, so dRMM’s warm and welcoming Maggie’s Oldham, Waugh Thistleton’s resonant Bushey Cemetery and the castle-like Royal Birmingham Conservatoire by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios are all present and correct. But it would be good to have seen Feilden Fowles’ honest, barn-like Waterloo Community Farm, mae’s generous Brentford Lock housing or 31/44 Architects’ distinctive Red House make the cut.
The RIBA National Awards are never likely to signal unexpected new trends. They are more a reflection of where architecture – and the society that produced it – was five or more years past, when the buildings were commissioned.
This is nowhere more true this year than with the Bloomberg European HQ by Foster + Partners. A quality building with money very well spent, it will certainly be one of Fosters’ history-book projects. But in retrospect, following the Brexit vote, was it – as Michael Bloomberg has himself asked – money wisely spent?
There are some seriously high-quality buildings in the awards, buildings that restore your faith in the power of architecture as both an art and a key part of civil life. For example, the sinewed elegance of Níall McLaughlin’s Sultan Nasrin Shah Centre or the generous urbanity of Kings Crescent Estate by Karakusevic Carson Architects and Henley Halebrown. But an unflattering reflection of present-day society’s priorities can also be seen in the weighting and omissions of the selections.
The relative paucity of school projects, for instance, flows from a government policy in England that in the state sector only allows expansion or replacement of existing schools, outside of founding an Academy. Many of these extension projects are very good ones: Maccreanor Lavington’s Kingsgate Primary School here is a case in point, but much fine work on a more minor key doesn’t register in the National Awards. What legacy awaits future generations with such a low priority placed on good learning environments?
Healthcare, too, is not punching its weight. Why can’t a bit of the Maggie’s magic feed into larger projects – even given all the exigencies of medical programmes? Certainly some quality hospitals appeared in the Regional Awards and it would have been good to see one make it through to the Nationals. This omission is all the more perverse given that wellbeing has become such a watchword in so many sectors.
This is particularly true of workplace, which remains one of most interesting and inventive sectors. The White Collar Factory, for one, has pushed the aesthetic of the new build office into new territory. It’s also good to see such fine retrofit this year: the almost baroque layering of Michael Squire’s Department Store and the spatial and textural richness of Knox Bhavan’s offices – both firms nicely putting money where their mouths are in terms of the wellbeing of their own staff.
Inspired retrofit also appears to have given an inventive shot in the arm to the cultural sector and to city centres, with projects including the fine Storyhouse by Bennetts Associates in Chester. Meanwhile, the last, long-delayed Serota-legacy Tate project, at St Ives, designed by Jamie Fobert Architects, has turned out, despite all the changes and delays, to be really rather good.
A strangely underplayed sector this year is that of the individual house, with some very fine but no really standout projects. Maybe the age of the trophy house has passed.
Housing is always interesting, if frustrating, and the relative paucity of full-blooded council schemes is still a moot point, Kings Crescent Estate being the exception to prove the rule. Why no Peter Barber scheme for instance? But one refreshing trend is the increasing importance, provision and generosity of in-between and shared spaces, such as the hobby room in Maccreanor Lavington’s Royal Albert Wharf.
One of the most interesting and buoyant sectors is still higher education. Here the range and confidence of projects this year exudes a sense of social responsibility and civic ambition seen only rarely in other sectors, reflecting the confidence and care of its clients.There is again this year a sad lack of infrastructure or transport projects and we must wait until behemoths like the Elizabeth Line come on stream. But it shouldn’t be just about grands projets: in Germany for instance, storage sheds and distribution points are part of the bread-and-butter of many practices: why not here? And why, at the other end of the distribution net, can’t more architectural stardust be sprinkled on retail, as a key environment where we spend a good deal of our lives?
Looking at the UK spread of projects, it’s even more London-heavy than usual. But there is a renewed showing of regional muscle this year from Birmingham, perhaps beginning to punch its weight as second city in terms of its architecture and urban place making. It is going to be interesting to follow its development. There’s a sad absence of projects from the RIBA’s Northern Ireland and East Midlands regions, which had 12 and seven Regional Award winners respectively. Regarding materials, Cor-ten extensions are having a moment and the high plateau of ‘peak brick’ is still being trod, while a rival upland of CLT is developing, if not so visible externally. This underpins an increasingly dominant aesthetic internally of timber – building on myriad interiors flooded with European oak. Hygge has a lot to answer for.
In terms of the dominating practices, with three projects from Allford Hall Monaghan Morris and a brace from Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, Bennetts, Hawkins\Brown, Maccreanor Lavington and RSHP, there are no real surprises. And quality will out, with a couple each from smaller practices such as Groupwork + Amin Taha, Henley Halebrown and Níall McLaughlin. If only there were more of a regional spread.
And for the Stirling Prize? Fobert’s Tate St Ives, Foster’s Bloomberg, Groupwork + Amin Taha’s Caroline Place, McLaughlin’s Sultan Nasrin Shah Centre should all be in with a good chance as very fine buildings. But I’d put my money this year on MUMA’s Storey’s Field Community Centre and Nursery in Cambridge, a really exceptional one.
Index by architect
|6a architects||Coastal House||South West||House|
|AL_A||Victoria and Albert Museum Exhibition Road Quarter||London||Cultural|
|Allan Murray Architects||Boroughmuir High School||Scotland||School|
|Allford Hall Monaghan Morris||Weston Street||London||Housing|
|Allford Hall Monaghan Morris||White Collar Factory||London||Workplace|
|Allford Hall Monaghan Morris||Liverpool’s Royal Court||North West||Cultural|
|Arboreal Architecture||Bethnal Green Memorial||London||Cultural|
|Bennetts Associates||Shaftesbury Theatre||London||Cultural|
|Bennetts Associates||Storyhouse||North West||Cultural|
|Blee Halligan||Five Acre barn||East||Leisure|
|Cartwright Pickard Architects||Albert Works||Yorkshire||Workplace|
|Dixon Jones||Marlborough Primary School||London||School|
|dRMM Architects||Maggie’s Oldham||North West||Health / Wellbeing|
|Duggan Morris Architects||R7, Kings Cross||London||Workplace|
|Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios||University of Roehampton Library||London||Campus|
|Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios||Royal Birmingham Conservatoire||West Midlands||Campus|
|Foster + Partners||Bloomberg, London||London||Workplace|
|Groupwork + Amin Taha Architects||Caroline Place||London||House|
|Groupwork + Amin Taha Architects||15 Clerkenwell Close||London||Housing|
|Hawkins\Brown||53 Great Suffolk Street||London||Workplace|
|Hawkins\Brown||City of London Freemen’s School, Swimming Pool||South East||School|
|HaysomWardMiller Architects||Lochside House||Scotland||House|
|Henley Halebrown||Chadwick Hall||London||Campus|
|Ian Ritchie Architects||Royal Academy of Music - The Angela Burgess Recital Hall and The Susie Sainsbury Theatre||London||Campus|
|Jamie Fobert Architects with Evans & Shalev||New Tate St Ives||South West||Cultural|
|Karakusevic Carson Architects and Henley Halebrown||Kings Crescent Estate Phases 1 and 2||London||Housing|
|KKE Architects||St David’s Hospice, New In-Patient Unit||Wales||Health / Wellbeing|
|Knox Bhavan Architects||Knox Bhavan Studio||London||Workplace|
|LDN Architects||The Piece Hall and Calderdale Central Library and Archives||Yorkshire||Community|
|Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands||University of Birmingham Indoor Sports Centre||West Midlands||Campus|
|Maccreanor Lavington||Kingsgate Primary Lower School||London||School|
|Maccreanor Lavington||Royal Albert Wharf Phase 1||London||Housing|
|MUMA||Storey’s Field Community Centre and Nursery||East||Community|
|Níall McLaughlin Architects||West Court Jesus College||East||Campus|
|Níall McLaughlin Architects||The Sultan Nazrin Shah Centre||South||Campus|
|Nicholas Hare Architects||The David Attenborough Building||East||Campus|
|Penoyre & Prasad||Sibson Building||South East||Campus|
|Piercy&Company||25 Savile Row||London||Workplace|
|Purcell||Durham Cathedral Open Treasure||North East||Cultural|
|Reiach and Hall Architects||Nucleus, The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and Caithness Archive||Scotland||Community|
|Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners||Riverlight||London||Housing|
|Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners||The Leadenhall Building||London||Workplace|
|Roz Barr Architects||St Augustine’s Church||London||Community|
|Squire and Partners||The Department Store||London||Workplace|
|Stanton Williams||Victoria Hall King’s Cross||London||Campus|
|Tonkin Liu||Old Shed New House||Yorkshire||House|
|Waugh Thistleton Architects||Bushey Cemetery||East||Community|
|Witherford Watson Mann Architects||Walthamstow Wetlands||London||Leisure|