The stirling prize finds itself in interesting times in 2012, with its television coverage much reduced (to a promised mention on the Culture Show) but with a potentially fruitful new national newspaper tie-up with the Observer. This is the first Fleet Street deal since the prize was launched in 1996 in partnership with The Sunday Times. The shortlist this year is also a very different proposition to that of 16 years ago. Then, the UK was still limping out of recession, which much reduced the number of buildings of high enough quality to be eligible for the inaugural prize. Now we are in the second part of a double-dip recession but still have a fair supply of fine new buildings conceived in better times. Next year will be different.
Although the Stirling judges had more say this year in the RIBA Awards, from which the shortlist is drawn (one remembers fondly the early years of the prize when judges exercised their power to ‘call in’ certain clearly significant buildings that the Awards juries had seen fit to overlook), inevitably you find the odd fancied building that does not make the cut. This year, one might shed a tear for two standout rural buildings: Robin Snell’s highly ingenious demountable Garsington Opera House in the Chilterns, and Adam Khan’s floating Brockholes Visitor Centre in the Lake District. Both are as ‘permanent’ as many a City of London office building, but come from a very different part of the architectural brain. No reprieve either for Zaha Hadid’s Riverside Museum in Glasgow: the double Stirling Prize winner did not even scrape an RIBA Award.
So what of the actual shortlist? We describe them and give them our own highly personal verdicts – which we can be sure will carry no weight whatsoever with the judges.
The Hepworth, Wakefield
by David Chipperfield Architects
Some prefer the simpler (and cheaper) monopitch art sheds of his Turner Contemporary in Margate, but the higher ambition of the Hepworth, which we described in this magazine last June as ‘one of the best new art galleries Britain has seen in decades’, gave it the edge. The building is a modern version of a fortified medieval bastide, rising sheer from the foaming waters of the River Calder. A monolithic building is given the appearance of a cluster of smaller ones, each element representing one of the non-orthogonal galleries. The pinwheel arrangement of these galleries, along with their skewed plan, opens a sequence of spaces with a great deal more energy than the art-gallery norm. Views out are provided, unusually for a modern art gallery: so too is deliberately uneven daylighting, which washes down the ends of the rooms rather than being diffused evenly all over. And it represents, in a refined way, a return to Brutalism. This is a hard-edged, raw (though slightly tinted) concrete building, conceived as if it had been sculpted out of a single chunk of masonry.
RIBAJ verdict: We love the galleries: could this be another winner for Chipperfield?
London Olympic Stadium
by Populous with Sir Peter Cook
Certain architects and critics have been a bit sneery about the centrepiece of the 2012 Olympics, largely on the grounds that it is not consciously ‘iconic’. Well, that’s a good thing, surely. We like the sparseness of its skeletal white structure, the way it has been designed to come to pieces easily if needed, so leaving a small stadium dished into the ground. We like the way temporary pavilions could spring up on the broad elevated concourses around it. We are less keen on the ‘wrap’ of twisted tensioned banners which serves to conceal the purity of the structure and gives it something of the appearance of a giant fairy cake. Inside, as proved over and over again during the Games, it is a true crucible of sport.
RIBAJ verdict: May be a winner for sentimental and political reasons, and it’s certainly good, but it’s not the best building in the Olympic Park (that’s the Velodrome, insanely passed over last year).
The Lyric Theatre, Belfast
by O’Donnell + Tuomey
The Dublin duo are returning more and more to their Stirling roots as they mature, by which we mean Stirling’s ‘red trilogy’ period. They love brick – in this case hard Belfast red brick. Its foyers have great views of the river. However, those who frequent the building point to the extraordinary ‘creased’ interior of the auditorium with its excellent acoustics as the thing that really lifts it way above the norm.
RIBAJ verdict: We’d really love them to win at this, their fourth, appearance on the shortlist. Could vie with the Hepworth for top honours.
Maggie’s Centre, Gartnavel, Glasgow
One of two OMA buildings on this year’s shortlist, and as so often with these centres, it’s personal: Rem Koolhaas of OMA knew Maggie Keswick Jencks, herself a cancer victim, who conceived the idea of these supportive, domestic-scale centres. OMA failed to win in 2007 with its Casa da Musica in Porto: can it succeed with this clever but much less strident little circlet of a building? If so, it would be the second Maggie’s to win after Rogers’ London one in 2009.
RIBAJ verdict: The Maggies’ centres are all little jewels of concentrated architecture, an exemplary piece of patronage, but the series has already been acknowledged by the Stirling Prize. Not a likely winner.
New Court, London
by OMA with Allies and Morrison
The new HQ for the Rothschild merchant bank is on the very confined site the firm has occupied since 1809. The big moves are to lift the bulk of the building in two places: at street level, supplying views beneath it to a courtyard and Wren’s St Stephen Walbrook: and by lifting a ‘pavilion’ building above an intermediate roof garden. It is tall, and right behind the Wren, but its shimmering skin is unassertive and on a typical London grey day dematerialises. It’s all about the top and the bottom: in between, you get a big if finely-crafted lump of standard office floorspace. The new ‘public’ space at ground level is however an illusion: through no fault of the architect it is off-limits to normal mortals.
RIBAJ verdict: can a bespoke City building, OMA’s big UK coup, win the Stirling? We think not. It’s still just offices, with a twist.
Sainsbury Laboratory, Cambridge
by Stanton Williams
A bumper year for the architect saw it with three award-winners: this, the new Central St Martin’s art school behind London’s King’s Cross, and the Eton Manor sports complex just north of the Olympic Park; the latter two proving it can design fantastic stripped down spaces. Money was no object for the £82m Sainsbury Laboratory, however. Light, spacious volumes distinguish the laboratories and there are great sociable working spaces in between with timber carrells and a leisurely central staircase. There is something very natural about the building as it reaches out to the public through a café at the heart of the botanical gardens. The planting, as much as the warm Metz limestone and concrete, explains part of its delicious appeal. RIBAJ verdict:
This is the stand out building on the list. But is it too elite to win?