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The great housing face-off

Rory Olcayto
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It’s the RIBA Stirling Prize shortlist’s housing projects that say most about British architecture today, says Rory Olcayto

What does the RIBA look for in the projects it shortlists for the Stirling Prize? Craft, mostly, meaning smartly detailed, well put-together buildings that in today’s era of PRchitecture also exhibit popular appeal.

This year is no exception. There is MUMA’s extension to the much-loved Whitworth in Manchester, with its Miesian steel columns and Aalto-esque brickwork (plus a touch of MUMA’s heroes: Andy MacMillan and Isi Metzstein).

There is Niall McLoughlin’s Darbishire Place in London (pictured): cheapish, handsome and, despite its London-look, a possible template for housing elsewhere.

We have a school, too, by AHMM, an end-of-era project showcasing the best of BSF, and a vision of what might have been if the Conservative Government believed in state-sponsored education instead of the marketplace.

There is Reiach and Hall’s Maggie’s Centre in Airdrie, its hand-made Danish bricks making for a very fine addition to this most people-centred of projects.

Then we have Heneghan Peng’s new school of architecture for the University of Greenwich, which marries a hard-wearing interior with a bold public face that fits neatly into its Unesco-protected townscape.

And finally there is Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners’ Neo Bankside housing, a kind of hi-tech ambassador of glass and steel and a reminder of an architectural skillset pioneered by the British profession.

But what else do these finalist tells us about the state of British architecture? It has been said already, but let’s say it again: brick is back – despite the supply shortage. Still, I struggle to see how brick facades signal austerity, as so many commentators and architects declare, so I’ll argue instead that it’s simply a fad.

What about the fact that a BSF project is vying for the Stirling Prize? In truth, it says very little. That programme is dead and buried. What’s more interesting is the presence yet again of AHMM on the shortlist – its fourth appearance in the last eight contests. Since its debut in 2008 (for another school, Westminster Academy) AHMM has risen from 40th to third in the AJ100.  Who could now argue that business success and great design don’t go hand-in-hand?

Reiach and Hall’s billing is another welcome development. Chief architect Neil Gillespie is rather unsung, but this project shows he’s one of Britain’s best. That the project architect (Laura Kinnaird) and client (Maggie’s chief executive Laura Lee) are both women makes this a rare but welcome example, too.

And Greenwich’s shortlisting is the fourth year in a row for a university building, a sequence kick-started by Stanton Williams’ victorious Sainsbury Lab in 2012. Clearly this sector is willing to invest in design.

But the biggest story here is the great housing face-off: steel and glass versus humble brick. Ordinary homes v millionaires’ deposit boxes. Hi-tech v low- tech. Modesty v glamour. I refer of course to Darbishire Place and Neo Bankside. Even the names suggest different worlds. If you’re looking for an easy story, you could argue that the buildings embody the widening gulf between Britain’s rich and poor. Yet in one way these buildings are closely related: each, largely, is housing for immigrants.

rory.olcayto@emap.com Twitter: @roryolcayto

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Readers' comments (1)

  • A good piece until the last startling line, which could be a quote from the Sun or the Mail. It's true that most deposit box design (a term coined, I think, by a planner who never minded taking the deposits in the City) is bought off-shore, although whether the owner's passport or merely the bank account is off-shore may vary. It's true also that when Henry Darbishire designed for Peabody the estates were intended to replace the teeming warrens of Whitechapel that housed anyone from anywhere. That didn't entirely work out in the 19th century - it was only the respectable poor who were housed - but it was noted in the last EU elections especially that it was cosmopolitan London where UKIP made least impact. Leave the 'easy story' to the cheap press, and hope the right building wins.

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