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Níall McLaughlin: Colleges have been extraordinary champions of modern architecture in Britain

Isabelle Priest

The 2022 RIBA Stirling Prize winner discusses building a practice that comes to stand for something, and a building that will stand the test of time

Níall McLaughlin on The New Library, Magdalene College, winning the Stirling Prize 2022.
Níall McLaughlin on The New Library, Magdalene College, winning the Stirling Prize 2022. Credit: Níall McLaughlin Architects

It’s the fourth time you’ve been nominated for the Stirling Prize, how does it feel to have won?

The prize is for a building, but it’s an amazing feeling that it’s happened. The strange thing is, you are sitting around the table with your whole team, client and builder, everybody who you know who made the building, and suddenly when you are whisked away to these interviews, it’s quite a surreal experience.

What do you think pushed this project, rather than the others you’ve been nominated for previously, into the winning position?

I couldn’t compare it to other buildings on the shortlist this year because they all have their merits, and in different years the RIBA will want to celebrate different aspects of architecture. I think it’s terrific that since the 1950s colleges have been extraordinary champions of modern architecture in Britain. They have consistently been some of the best clients. And yet a college has never won the Stirling Prize before. That’s a fantastic thing to celebrate.

On this project, I think there’s a balance between order and variety that is satisfying. There’s a level of integrity in the detailing and construction, and a relationship between the underlying architecture principle which is brought through in a number of varieties. The command of detail comes from the fact I now have a mature team of people working in the practice. Tim Allen-Booth, who is the associate in charge of this, was also in charge of the chapel which was on the Stirling shortlist in 2013. Then Clare McMenamin has been in the office for quite a few years. We’ve got a team of people who are growing together. You can have a good idea about a building, but you need integrity and depth to produce that consistency, and that comes from the quality of your team.

How do you ensure that as a practice, as a team, you get this level of craft and integrity, as well as the buy-in you need from clients?

One of the things is to build a practice, and that practice comes to stand for something. Then the staff that want to come to work for you and the clients who want you to come and build for them share an aspiration. You try to create a space for that aspiration to blossom and thrive. Within that, it’s a question of keeping a conversation going. If a Part 2 comes to work in the office, how do they get to a point where they have the mastery of detail that someone like Tim has? It comes through a very open learning culture. We share a room. There is constant dialogue between projects to make sure we are teaching each other the standards we want applied across buildings. Once you make buildings that have a particular material character, you associate yourself with makers, craftsmen and contractors who believe in the project. The contractor on this project, Cocksedge, was the contractor on a previous project we did for another college in Cambridge and it had previously worked with this college.

The New Library, Magdalene College, University of Cambridge, designed by Níall McLaughlin Architects wins Stirling Prize 2022.
The New Library, Magdalene College, University of Cambridge, designed by Níall McLaughlin Architects wins Stirling Prize 2022. Credit: Nick Kane

You have a dozen completed or ongoing projects for Oxford and Cambridge colleges. What would you say to critics who feel that these clients are too wealthy, and the work is too rarefied to win the Stirling Prize at this time?

Colleges are communities who build out of the resources of their alumni. Magdalene College, for example, had hundreds of donors for this building, some of them putting in £750, some of them £500,000. I think it’s good when a learning community holds onto its alumni and that they contribute back into that community. In many ways it’s a positive model. The question is, are those communities open to anybody? And could someone who is intelligent and bright become a member of that community and thrive, and in return give themselves back to that community? Something I’ve noticed teaching at UCL and working on Oxford and Cambridge colleges is how much more diverse those places are becoming really quite quickly. Remember, we are building for future communities. I feel entirely confident that those communities will be from a range of backgrounds and that these communities can reinvent themselves in all sorts of ways.

In terms of it being rarefied, when you are building in a context like Magdalene, there is a certain expenditure that you will have to have to be able to build. If you are building besides the Pepys Library in the middle of a college that dates to the 14th century, there’s an investment in a craft tradition that will be required of you by the public. That is through the planning process, Historic England, through the demands of conservation and so on. There is a public appetite for their historic places to remain in their integrity, to communicate meaning and a sense of tradition and continuity with the past.

Having said that, the architecture of our office does not depend on large sums of money. We have been on the Stirling Prize shortlist for low-cost housing with Peabody. The same principles were applied to that project. A good architect is going to be able to work with any reasonable budget. As a practice we don’t aspire to be part of a rarefied world. We do a lot of projects for faith communities, educational institutions, museums and places that care about interpretation. I think the reason we inhabit that world is that I have a strong conviction that buildings are receptacles and communicators at a deep, almost subliminal level of strong cultural values.

How will you celebrate the win with your practice?

We will celebrate together! Magdalene library is something that has bubbled up to the surface, but as a team around us there are all these other projects that have the same passion and integrity. What we would want is to get them all together, and I suspect that when we find the right venue we will have a very big party.

This prize is named after James Stirling, who designed one of his most famous buildings for the University of Cambridge. How do you think as a university client, as a college client, Cambridge has changed since the History Faculty building?

The trinity of buildings that Stirling did, Leicester Engineering Building, Oxford Florey Building and Cambridge History Faculty, are extraordinarily daring experiments in an architectural idea. There must have been an extraordinary liberty given to Stirling, and it probably belonged to an era when the figure of the architect was understood differently. I think much more direct agency was given. You feel that these pieces have a powerful sense of almost uninterrupted creation by the architect almost as individual author. I think that when you work for colleges now it’s a different world. And colleges are different from the university. We were cross-examined on every single aspect of that building. An architect that works for a college has to be able to sit at quite long meetings with serious academics who will grill them to exhaustion on every detail. What’s nice about it is that if you can justify it, they are academics they will say ‘well yes, he’s justified it, go ahead’. There’s a different model of authorship in that; the panache of the individual great creator versus the architectural practice as a team that’s involved in incredibly complex negotiations with the college, stakeholders, city, Historic England.

The other thing about Stirling is that his buildings have that extraordinary sense of being clipped together from building systems, huge curtain walling and so on, but our buildings come from a different tradition where everything is made from either a tree or a rock, it’s put together, crafted in a different kind of way. That’s more to do with us than the colleges, I suspect.

What other exciting projects are you working on right now?

The difficulty with that is there’s a new thing now where you aren’t allowed to say what projects you are working on. We are designing a new museum in Leiden in the Netherlands on a very interesting site that has got classic buildings from the Amsterdam school and baroque buildings from the 17th and 18th century. We’re adding new architecture to create a new museum there. That’s a lovely project that continues the same kind of tradition.

Click here to read Jan-Carlos Kucharek's review of The New Library, Magdalene College


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