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What does this year’s Stirling shortlist say about UK architecture?

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With two retrofits and two low-carbon residential schemes, the sustainability agenda is particularly evident in the six schemes contending for UK architecture’s biggest prize, says Rob Wilson

The RIBA Stirling Prize shortlist is, of course, never an exact snapshot of UK architecture. But one can’t help trying to divine the state our architecture is in from the six buildings chosen each year, whether considering them by sector, technically, or even aesthetically. It’s all too tempting, given architecture’s key role in society, to draw wider inferences from the list, taking the temperature of where the country is socially, culturally and politically. This year’s eclectic selection, comprising a house, housing, transport hub, distillery, art gallery and opera house, provides a particularly rich mix of schemes for analysis.

Advances in sustainability thinking are particularly evident, with notable emphasis placed this year on materials and embodied carbon. It’s a reaction, no doubt, to the disappointment regarding this aspect in last year’s winning scheme, Foster’s Bloomberg building, and shows how the politics of the RIBA Stirling Prize’s past can have a bearing on a subsequent year’s choice of shortlist. 

The six shortlisted schemes are notable for their thought, intense engagement with site, history and material

For once there is also a good regional spread with, unusually, just one London scheme among the contenders.

Two schemes on the shortlist are fine retrofits, which sit right in the cross-hairs of the AJ’s RetroFirst campaign in their exceptional rejuvenation and reformulations of historic structures. First, Grimshaw’s makeover of London Bridge station, which after 183 years now finally has a concourse that provides an appropriately lofty arrival and departure point for millions. This Network Rail-commissioned project is a fine reminder of the benefits that good architecture can bring to this sector, over and above the requirement to move passengers efficiently from A to B. And second, Witherford Watson Mann’s Nevill Holt Opera – a skilful and sensitive reworking of a stable block which showcases a beautiful use of natural materials and has created a very special opera house in a rural location. 

Another scheme exceptional in its approach to whole-life carbon is Cork House by Matthew Barnett Howland, Dido Milne and Oliver Wilton. It is almost a PhD thesis of a house in its approach to minimising emissions. Its envelope, formed using only waste cork, pushes the potential of a fully bio-renewable construction material to the max.

The long-heralded revival in council housing is now underway and is justly represented in the shortlist by Goldsmith Street in Norwich, designed by Mikhail Riches and Cathy Hawley. It is a lean, green restitching of the city fabric around streets and shared spaces. With its careful orchestration of details such as separate letterbox stands to minimise draughts and in its communal spaces, which include the type of shared back alleys traditional in Norwich, the project really does set a new benchmark for housing in terms of building and social sustainability.

As to the likely winner, it’s a two-horse race

Aesthetically, the range of materials and structural systems exhibited by the six shortlisted schemes moves the story on refreshingly from the recent ‘peak brick’ years. There’s hardly a sign here of any Po-mo revival, but Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners’ Macallan Distillery and Visitor Experience has given the practice’s High-Tech style a new twist. Its expressed steel frame supports an undulating timber gridshell green roof, riffing on a new, elegant Rogers-does-rustic aesthetic.

Overall, there’s a notable richness to the materials on show this year, exemplified in Feilden Fowles’ The Weston visitor centre and gallery. This presents a powerful monolithic entrance façade of lean, low-cement concrete, mixed using local stone aggregate and laid in striated geological-like bands. It’s this simplicity of singular materials – seeming to reflect more general concerns around sourcing and traceability and echoed in the mini-Mayan temple-like blocks of the Cork House – which can perhaps be seen as a new, developing aesthetic.

Whether retrofit or new build, the six shortlisted schemes are notable for their thought, intense engagement with site, history and material, providing a very positive cross-section of where UK architecture is at.

As to the likely winner, it’s a two-horse race. 

While Feilden Fowles’ immaculate Weston visitor centre is beatific, its cool, almost self-effacing presence in the landscape probably counts against it, delivering neither the pizzazz nor the social message usually necessary for a Stirling Prize-winner. 

The Macallan Distillery is a bit of an outrider, too, and not just geographically. The half-excavated ‘engineered landscape’ of its design is impressive, but it feels a bit too willful and out of step with present concerns of material sustainability to win. 

The Cork House’s slightly eccentric forms are striking, rather clunky, yet have a strange beauty and sensibility to them. Indeed, they show how sustainability and beauty can mix. 

But it feels a bit uncontextual, its repetitive geometries unwedded to the site. Its ‘beautiful polemic’, as Hattie Hartman describes it in her appraisal, is probably too much of a one-off, though it has an outsider’s chance as a textbook essay in sustainability. 

Talking of beauty, the Nevill Holt Opera is a moody, glowing, pitch-perfect project, both in its acoustics and the sensitivity of its conversion. While very fine, it seems unlikely that a Witherford Watson Mann-authored, repurposed heritage building could win the RIBA Stirling Prize a second time after the practice’s 2013 win with Astley Castle. 

That leaves Grimshaw’s retrofit of London Bridge station: a building as a piece of city, offering ‘a democratising spirit of dignity and delight’, as Catherine Slessor describes it in her appraisal. The skilful sorting of the labyrinthine station daily lifts the spirits and eases the journeys of hundreds of thousands of people. Mikhail Riches’ Goldsmith Street is also a piece of city-making, a scheme of simple, quality housing, offering ‘radical normalcy’, as George Kafka puts it in his review. It optimises levels of sunlight to interiors and shared social spaces to exteriors, and is all wrapped in a super-green skin, inspiring in its overall parti and message, if slightly less so in its architecture. 

These last two both offer huge societal and civic worth – on a day-to-day use level or as a model for replication. But my hunch is that, while Goldsmith Street could cut it, Grimshaw’s London Bridge station – also this year’s AJ100 Building of the Year – will be named winner of the 2019 RIBA Stirling Prize.

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