Simon Aldous’s take on the big architectural stories of the week: RIBA National Awards announced • RIBA declares climate emergency • Rotherhithe bridge scrapped • Scottish government refuses to help Cardross seminary
Do the 54 winners of this year’s RIBA National Awards tell a bigger story about the state of the nation?
Two years ago I remarked on the absence of any state schools among the winning education buildings that year – a legacy of Michael Gove’s time as education secretary when he scrapped the Building Schools for the Future programme while rubbishing the use of ‘award-winning architects’.
Strangely, this is an attitude that private schools don’t share, as evidenced by projects by Haworth Tompkins and Hopkins among this year’s five RIBA award-winning schools projects.
That mindset of state schools being less worthy of investment prevails. The axeing of a quality building programme has been followed by broader budget cuts that have left most schools struggling.
If we’re looking for wider portents in the projects winning this year’s prizes, the picture is more encouraging. There is a strong showing in both the housing sector and infrastructure – both areas where progress is vital to the nation’s wellbeing.
That social housing provision is finally being taken seriously was evidenced this week with RTPI research suggesting council home-building was at its highest since 1990; while Homes England, the government’s housing delivery body, announced its highest number of housing starts in nine years.
The schemes that won RIBA awards also are encouraging in the type of projects recognised: co-housing at Mole’s Marmalade Lane in Cambridge; and the UK’s largest Passivhaus scheme, Goldsmith Street social housing in Norwich, by Mikhail Riches with Cathy Hawley.
One scheme combines both housing and infrastructure: the creation of a whole new suburb at North West Cambridge, which has received awards for AECOM’s overall masterplan as well as Lot 1 by WilkinsonEyre and Mole Architects, and a series of utility buildings by Robin Lee Architects.
Once again the AJ’s Rob Wilson has speculated as to which of the winners might be in with a shout for this year’s Stirling Prize. Last year, four of his five tips made the shortlist. This year he singles out the North West Cambridge masterplan as an overall worthy winner.
But he feels the omens are also good for eight other projects. Four of these are residential – Marmalade Lane; Goldsmith Street; Peter Zumthor’s Secular Retreat holiday home; and Nithurst Farm by Adam Richards. The others are Hall McKnight’s Belfast transport hub; Witherford Watson Mann’s Nevill Holt Opera; as well as two revamps of existing buildings: Haworth Tompkin’s Battersea Arts Centre and Grimshaw’s London Bridge station.
It’s now 11 years since a housing project won the Stirling, but it would seem fitting if one of these picks were to take home the honours this year.
Just seven months after Bristol and Manchester city councils declared a climate emergency, followed by a wave of other local authorities, the RIBA has made its own declaration. Even Parliament beat the institute to it, making its own declaration at the start of May.
Better late than never, perhaps, but do such declarations achieve anything? Bristol, accompanied its statement with a pledge for the city to become carbon neutral by 2030. The RIBA says it is backing the government’s new commitment to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 (the institute rejected a motion to go with the earlier 2030 goal) but what does this mean in practical terms?
For example, since air travel is a major contributor to global warming, would a practice be stripped of its RIBA chartered status if it sought work designing a major international airport? This example springs to mind following this week’s announcement of the shortlist to design a terminal for a new £2.9 billion airportin Sydney. The airport will be able to handle 10 million passengers a year in its first phase, expanding to a mighty 82 million by 2060.
Of the five practices in the running, four are British: Foster + Partners, Zaha Hadid Architects, Rogers Stirk Harbour and Pascall+Watson. They are also all signatories to the Architects Declare pledge to take action over climate change.
This follows fellow-signatory Grimshaw’s unveiling of its masterplan for the expansion of Heathrow, as discussed in last week’s Weekend Roundup.
One of the pledges these architects signed up to was to ‘evaluate all new projects against the aspiration to contribute positively to mitigating climate breakdown’. It’s very hard to see how the evaluation of a major new airport would come to any conclusion other than it would achieve the very opposite: ie accelerating climate breakdown.
At the RIBA Council meeting that declared the climate emergency, institute president Ben Derbyshire stressed that ‘we need to do more than make symbolic statements’. But right now only symbolic statements seem to be forthcoming.
Poll: Should architectural practices that have pledged to address the climate emergency be seeking work designing airports?
• No, never
• Only if they commit to a low-carbon design
Last week’s poll asked: Has the Serpentine annual pavilion run its course? Yes, said 57% of voters, against 43% who favoured continuing with the programme. Among those leaving comments, there was a feeling that at the very least it could benefit from a refresh, such as hiring younger UK practices, showcasing sustainable design or even moving location.
People hoping to make use of a quick pedestrian and cycle route between Rotherhithe and Canary Wharf are out of luck it seems. Rather than making their journey via a new bridge over the Thames, the more ponderous method of a ferry now looks more likely.
But has something gone awry here?
Architect ReForm had previously worked with engineers Elliott Wood and Buro Happold to draw up a speculative design for a bascule-type bridge. The practice claimed its proposal had local support. Yet when Transport for London started to progress with building a crossing, ReForm’s design was ruled out. Instead, TfL favoured a 90m-tall vertical lift bridge designed by Knight Architects working with Atkins.
But as preparation progressed, the budget soared – as so often seems the case with bridge projects. An initial costing of £350 million rocketed to more than £600 million. At which point London’s deputy mayor for transport Heidi Alexander said the scheme had become unaffordable.
ReForm meanwhile maintains that its original bridge proposal would only cost £100 million, but this appears to be completely out of the running, with Alexander leaning towards the ferry option.
It has now emerged that a proposal for such a service is well advanced, with two new piers designed by architect Anthony Carlile and marine engineer Beckett Rankine for Thames Clippers. Their plan is for an electric, self-docking, self-charging ferry service, providing a crossing every three minutes. A less frequent service already serves the route. They put the total cost at £30 million.
But it does seem strange how TfL’s attitude has gone from: we need something bigger and more expensive to you can go by boat.
Also this week
- The future of Cardross Seminary was looking bleak this week after the Scottish government decided it would not take responsibility for the derelict Category A-listed building. Historic Environment Scotland had recommended the action, saying that making it safe for public access would cost more than £13 million over 20 years. The Gillespie Kidd & Coia building was built in the 1960s and is regarded as one of the UK’s finalist examples of Brutalist architecture. It has been the subject of a number of failed attempts to save or repurpose it. Its owner, the Archdiocese of Glasgow, is now expected to seek permission to demolish the building.
- Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners has suffered a 27 per cent fall in pre-tax profit, according to its latest annual accounts. The practice posted £5.1 million of profit before tax for the 12 months to 30 June 2018 – down from £7 million the previous year. Meanwhile, turnover dropped 8 per cent to £28.8 million over the same period. The figures also show 23 fewer architects at the practice, down to a total of 114.
- Less than a month before exiting office, Theresa May has called for minimum space standards in housing to be made compulsory. At present, the government’s standards are at the discretion of local authorities. Concern has recently been expressed over the space standards of office-to-resi conversions, which can bypass planning permission through permitted development rights (PDR). Too bad she didn’t do something about this during her time in charge of the country.
Simon Aldous’s Weekend Roundup is emailed exclusively to AJ subscribers every Saturday morning. Click here to find out about our subscription packages