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‘This is architecture designed to endure’

House of Trace by Tsuruta Architects
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Cathy Slessor gives her view on the 2016 RIBA Stephen Lawrence Prize shortlist 

‘Biscuit or blancmange?’ asked The Observer’s architecture critic Rowan Moore recently, paraphrasing the current direly polarised state of British architecture. As it turns out, the shortlist for the Stephen Lawrence Prize is pretty biscuity. A family pack of plain digestives, in fact.

The six schemes are modest, formally reticent and generally make virtues out of necessities. Four are either houses or house extensions, one is a primary school and the other a mobile studio for watching artists at work, which, if nothing else, is typologically titillating.

Intended to catalyse fresh talent, the prize celebrates projects with a budget ceiling of £1 million. This necessarily limits scale and scope, hence the perhaps inevitable bias towards the domestic. Collectively, they speak of pragmatic concerns, illuminated in a laconically poetic way by materials and tectonics.

Lovers of blancmange might find this all a bit dull, but you sense this is architecture designed to endure, both physically and stylistically, beyond the catwalk moment of its completion. The only caveat is that there isn’t much ‘fresh talent’ on display.

Only Tsuruta Architects and Henning Stummel seem like genuinely new kids on the block. If this is truly going to be an award for sparky fledglings, there needs to be a more forensic focus on winkling out gifted newcomers so they can claim their place in the RIBA spotlight.

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