In a close vote, poetry and practical concerns such as sustainability dominated the popular pronouncement for which of the six Stirling Prize shortlist was the best building this year
Courtauld Connects at the Courtauld Institute of Art on the Strand in London, designed by Witherford Watson Mann, has been voted the winner of the 2023 Peoples’ Poll on the RIBA Stirling Prize.
The comments from those who voted for Courtauld Connects are lyrical. One wrote: ‘The changes are both subtle and striking, changing the feel and flow while honoring the history and original footprint. Small spaces feel somehow bigger - and most importantly, the incredible collection truly takes centre stage, as it should.’ Another conveyed the experience of the space as well as the process: ‘The Courtauld now shines in a calm almost meditative way enabling anyone and everyone to enjoy its superb collections. Elegantly done and beautifully detailed the gentle restoration of William Chambers historic masterpiece deserved such careful restoration by gifted architects.’
But poetry wasn’t always needed: ‘Retrofit first!’ was the simple verdict from one voter on why Courtauld Connects should win.
It was a hotly contested race with FCBStudios' University of Warwick’s Faculty of Arts leading for much of the voting period and eventually coming in at 27% of the vote as opposed to the winning 28% for Courtauld. It is notable that the two front runners are both open to large numbers of people, while other projects serve a smaller number of people day to day. The comments on Warwick have a real energy, they describe it as ‘exciting’, ‘fabulous’, ‘spectacular’ and even ‘mesmerising’ when it comes to the staircase. One commentator enjoyed how it brought together the staircases of Hogwarts and Scandinavian-Japanese styles: ‘I love the natural, organic feel of the walls and stairs. It's unlike any other building I've stepped in. It's hogwarts meets japandi.’
The John Morden Centre, designed by Mae, also performed strongly with 21% of the votes cast. Comments from voters reflected the care and craft of the building and the pressing social need it is serving. ‘Just a beautifully scaled and crafted building on one level, but meeting a clearly defined and complex set of needs on another level,’ wrote one voter. ‘Care facilities don’t need to be bland!’ wrote another with a clear sense of revelation.
The three housing projects on the shortlist, two with community spaces, got smaller percentages of the vote with A House for Artists doing the best of this group with 13%. Of this project ‘innovative’ and ‘adaptable’ were repeatedly used by those commenting. Those who have seen Apparata presenting the plans will understand this comment: ‘Genuinely (as opposed to superficially) innovative, and repeatable in principle.’
Many of the comments on Adam Khan Architects' Central Somers Town Community Facilities and Housing mentioned the context of Somers Town, others the performance data and the thoughtful nature of the project. ‘The buildings are crafted but modest, creating a backdrop of light, texture and enclosure to encourage and celebrate creative play,’ wrote one commentator. ‘An architecture of hope, empathy and love.’
And those voting were clear on the significance of Lavender Hill Courtyard, designed by Sergison Bates Architects, and the challenge it has succeeded in delivering on. ‘With housing in short supply, it is an easy thing for developers to construct predictable solutions of same-same looking blocks of apartments. Here, on a tricky brownfield site, the emphasis has been on designing something meaningful. Each move is considered and the result is extraordinarily successful.’
What was clear in the comments was the love felt for the projects on this Stirling Prize shortlist. Words like ‘awesome’ and ‘amazing’ crop up again and again. Scale and humanity were also in there together with admiration and thanks for the calm and joyful spaces that this shortlist represents.
Images on montage: Lavender Hill Courtyard, photographed David Grandorge; John Morden Centre, photographed by Jim Stephenson; Courtauld Institute, photographed by Philip Vile; Central Somers Town Community Facilities and Housing, photographed by David Grandorge; A House for Artists, photographed by Apparata. Centre: Warwick University Faculty of Art, photographed by Hufton & Crow.