This year’s national winners – distilled from the 138 regional awards given earlier this year – include community building projects with an impact beyond their site boundaries
The RIBA’s National Awards 2023 have been announced. The 30 winners are drawn from the 138 awards given out region by region as well as those for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The National Awards, sponsored by Forterra, are the next step in the awards pyramid that leads to the pinnacle of the Stirling Prize shortlist and the Stirling Prize itself. Each winner has been rigorously judged with checks starting on paper with photography, drawings and energy use before the judges’ visits.
Many of the winning buildings have an impact beyond their site boundaries, building communities, creating homes and local facilities and green space, and acting as a catalyst for further change. This is particularly noticeable in the three award winners in the London Borough of Camden. Chair of the RIBA Awards Group, Denise Bennetts, co-founder of Bennetts Associates visited many of the projects. ‘We saw architects enabling clients and community to get something better than they anticipated and elevating straightforward projects,’ she said.
Two Camden projects – Central Somers Town Community Facilities and housing by Adam Khan Architects and Edith Neville Primary School by Hayhurst & Co Architects – are within spitting distance of one another and part of the same major renewal programme. Both are remarkably inventive and the architects have been closely engaged with the community. In the case of the community centre, this resulted in a change of site and more homes being built. Just up the road is Mæ’s Agar Grove housing, also for Camden.
There are some surprises in the projects that didn’t make it through, most notably the Marshall Building for the London School of Economics designed by RIBA Royal Gold Medallists Grafton Architects, whose previous UK university project at Kingston University won the 2021 Stirling Prize. The concrete trees of the public ground floor have a dramatic sculptural impact. But the offices above and the pre-existing three-storey basement below perhaps don’t live up to that promise. Bennetts, chair of the RIBA Awards group explains: ‘We didn’t think the synthesis was as resolved as on other award-winning buildings.’
Only one practice has two winning projects, Mae, which was on last year’s Stirling shortlist for its Sands End Arts and Community Centre. This year it is recognised for the John Morden Centre for elder care in Blackheath, south-east London, and its Agar Grove housing in north London.
Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, which won five regional awards this year, takes just one national award, for the Faculty of Arts at the University of Warwick. Meanwhile, Apparata and Citizens Design Bureau are two of the practices that take their first National Awards this year.
Residential projects make a strong showing, accounting for nearly half of the National Awards, including three social housing projects. Out of these, 10 are private houses, scattered all around the UK. This reflects the huge number of private houses entered into the 2023 awards (around 40 per cent of total entries) and perhaps the first batch of completions from the pandemic upsurge in domestic projects as people spent more time living and working at home and invested lockdown savings in improving that experience.
Perhaps the most fun group of projects are those where the involvement of an architect was not a given. The fish-like form of Tonkin Liu’s Swing Bridge in London’s Crystal Palace brings joy while combining access and protection for a small island. At the Playhouse Theatre, Carmody Groarke has created a theatrical experience that turns the whole building into part of the show as the Kit Kat Club. And in Enfield, 5th Studio’s Bloqs cleverly repurposes an industrial shed into much-needed workshops.
Since 2020, the RIBA has gradually increased the amount of mandatory sustainability information, including reporting in-use energy figures drawing on utility bills, and embodied energy (practices entering may be reassured to find that there are inexpensive ways to calculate the latter). Judging a year after completion also ensures that the user feedback is truly illuminating. ‘It gives users time to tweak buildings,’ says Bennetts, ‘and they have seen them through the seasons and are often delighted at unexpected aspects, like the way light articulates spaces through the seasons. You hear a sense of joy.’
The 2023 RIBA National Awards are sponsored by Forterra.