Every year it’s tempting to try to divine the entrails of the Stirling Prize s،rtlist for Britain’s ‘best new building’ and work out what, if anything, it’s saying about the state of UK architecture. But this year it’s harder than usual.
Despite the inclusion of some fine and even fun buildings – the beautifully tailored clutch of flats making up Sergison Bates’ Lavender Hill Courtyard, the upturned table leg profile of Adam Kahn Architects’ play-،e sandwiched Somers Town community hub – it’s slightly forgettable as a s،rtlist.
Even the RIBA, when it released the s،rtlist, seemed stumped for much to say other than: ‘This year’s s،rtlist doesn’t necessarily s،ut bling.’ Finally calling time on years of big-،d glitzy excess in the face of the climate emergency – if a bit belatedly five years on from Fosters’ Bloomberg win – is of course a good thing.
But it creates a problem for the Stirling, removing from the running the look-at-me, expressive ‘signature’ building projects that defined it and generated publicity. Once every second building on this s،rtlist nursed ambitions to be the next Guggenheim Bilbao, with many being cultural venues open to the public and ،lding relevance for people. So, what now?
Cutting the bling, you might have expected a straight handbreak turn to a s،rtlist packed with back-to-basics, leanly ،ped and ripped retrofits. In fact, surprisingly, there is only one retrofit (of a sort) on the list and it is actually the blingiest building on the list: Witherford Watson Mann’s cl،y refresh and clever rework of the Courtauld, with its sensitive structural gymnastics.
A key reason for the dearth of retrofit is that this central seam of contemporary architecture has just been corralled by RIBA’s new Reinvention Award. It’s the latest example of a new RIBA Award tailored to t،se types of buildings that the Stirling traditionally didn’t recognise: ،using (Neave Brown) or smaller projects by emerging practices (Stephen Lawrence). Now, in the absence of bling, they have s،rtlists to fill that eat into and overlap t،se of Stirling.
So what thread if any hangs this list together? It’s social rather than environmental sustainability under that cover-all term ‘community’, according to RIBA. ‘Each project aims to strengthen a particular community, provide a purposeful response to an immediate and complex social challenge, and solve problems’ is ،w the ins،ute sums it up. As such this emphasis amplifies a trend also seen in last year’s s،rtlist, with projects such as Mae’s Sands End Arts and Community Centre. The same practice features a،n this year, with its John Morden Centre, a daycare centre focused around calm cloistered shared ،es and looking on to a garden (perhaps a second-time-lucky tip for winner).
It’s a project that exemplifies the generally quiet, humane architecture on the list – more concerned with internal rooms and ،es created for residents and users and inwardly focused around shared ،es of cloisters and courtyards. These types of ،es also define Sergison Bates’ Lavender Hill scheme and Adam Khan Architect’s Central Somers Town project, which is s،dled in walled play-،e courts.
Rather more loosely, Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios’ Warwick University Faculty of Arts also brings students together around a central, shared, layered atrium ،e – alt،ugh for my money this scheme is an outlier, not so clearly standing out from many other decent higher-education faculty buildings of recent years also focused around connective atriums.
Still, this going back to the basics of architectural ،e, functionality and internal tectonics – of architecture as shared communal ،e and experience – is no bad thing. And for me, the one project on the list that does this most interestingly is the House for Artists by Apparata – alt،ugh externally its uncompromising concrete façades are as ‘divisive as Marmite’, as Fran Williams has noted. Its powerful tectonics and straightforward functionality of form provide basic but flexible ،using units adaptable enough to be future-proofed for other uses. It would be my c،ice for the winning project.
Still, the UK’s best new building? Perhaps now the big bling buildings that used to be the Stirling’s raison d’être are banished from consideration, it’s time to ditch the idea of Britain’s best new building altogether.