The Stirling Prize shortlist is a game too close to call, says Hugh Pearman

Once we’ve all gone through the customary annual ritual of ‘why on earth is building X on the Stirling shortlist when the much more deserving building Y is not?’ and had a little lie-down, this turns out to be an interesting if subdued best-of the RIBA and RIAS awards. It is an icon-free year, for a start, which is a relief. Aside from Richard Rogers’ firm, ‘Starchitects’ are conspicuously absent, though well-known names are there. And revised rules mean the prize has returned to its UK roots.

So the awkward business of overseas buildings by overseas architects competing for a predominantly UK prize is no more. Indeed, even buildings in the rest of Europe by UK architects now no longer qualify. The RIBA is to launch a new international award to cover those areas. However, buildings in the UK by RIBA chartered architects based outside the UK do count, as do buildings in the UK by International Fellows. 

What this all boils down to is a straightforward pyramid system: from the RIBA regional awards and the RIAS awards in Scotland come the national awards, from which the Stirling Prize shortlist of six is in turn selected. There are no unexpected arrivals from elsewhere. So what the Stirling jury visited was a cross-section of post-recession UK architecture, ranging in value of construction cost from £1.8m for Reiach and Hall’s Maggie’s Lanarkshire to £132m for Rogers Stirk Harbour’s Neo Bankside development.

Let’s start with that. The six-strong shortlist balances the superprime luxury London housing of the Neo Bankside mini-forest of mechanistic apartment towers next to Tate Modern by Rogers Stirk Harbour – which introduces a new landscaped public realm weaving through them – with London social rented housing in the form of Niall McLaughlin’s Darbishire Place in Whitechapel for the Peabody Trust. This is an understated five-storey brick block that repairs a group of six original mansion blocks – one lost to a WW2 bomb. Made different from its forbears by its generous corner balconies as much as its stripped-back appearance, it reinvigorates this perennial housing type.

  • University of Greenwich Stockwell Street building by Heneghan Peng Architects.
    University of Greenwich Stockwell Street building by Heneghan Peng Architects. · Credit: Hufton & Crow
  • Darbishire Place by Niall McLaughlin Architects.
    Darbishire Place by Niall McLaughlin Architects. · Credit: Nick Kane
  • Neo Bankside by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners.
    Neo Bankside by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners. · Credit: Edmund Sumner
  • Maggie's Lanarkshire by Reiach and Hall Architects.
    Maggie's Lanarkshire by Reiach and Hall Architects. · Credit: David Grandorge
  • The Whitworth, Manchester by MUMA.
    The Whitworth, Manchester by MUMA. · Credit: Alan WIlliams
  • Burntwood School, Wandsworth by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris.
    Burntwood School, Wandsworth by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris. · Credit: Timothy Soar

Education is represented by AHMM’s Burntwood School in Wandsworth and Heneghan Peng’s new Stockwell Street Building for the University of Greenwich. Burntwood has something of a 1950s modular-system look to it – deliberately, this being a reference to the buildings of that era that it replaced – with some originals by Sir Leslie Martin retained. Good to see deep moulded pre-cast concrete cladding units back in the game, and adroitly handled, especially on the corners. At Greenwich, Dublin-based Heneghan Peng (a chartered RIBA practice) has achieved the difficult task of inserting a stone-clad building which contains the architecture school and university library into a World Heritage Site, backing onto a busy railway line and taking up the curve of the street in front. A triple-height crit space forms the focal point – no hiding place for students.

Culture comes in the form of The Whitworth gallery in Manchester by MUMA, arguably the highest-profile project on the shortlist in terms of press coverage so far. It’s a subtle mix of refurbishment, new build and landscape that recalibrates the whole place.

And finally, the continuing excellence of the programme of Maggie’s cancer support centres is recognised once more, this time for Maggie’s Lanarkshire by Reiach and Hall. This is a pavilion in a (perforated) walled garden, a place clearly intended to be a calming, therapeutic environment. The architect looks to the sky as well as to the ground in a sophisticated sequence of spaces, inside and out. 

The shortlist contains one winner of two previous Stirling Prizes – Rogers Stirk Harbour; plus three practices which have previously been shortlisted – AHMM, Heneghan Peng and Niall McLaughin. So welcome to this year’s first-timers in the nail-biting world of the Stirling shortlist, Reiach and Hall and MUMA.

The panel was chaired by practitioner Philip Gumuchdjian alongside RIBA president-elect Jane Duncan, and consisted of regional and national awards chairs from across the UK. Mostly noted practitioners, they judged alongside conservation specialist Paul Velluet and former City of London planner Peter Rees. 

What does this half-dozen projects tell us about architecture in the UK right now, apart from the fact that London continues to boom? That late glass-and-steel high-tech continues its run, courtesy of Rogers Stirk Harbour, but that – while some other projects also exploit the qualities of transparency and veiling – it’s mostly all about the judicious deployment of masonry now, whether brick, stone or concrete. There’s a return to depth, solidity and texture here, and a rediscovery of the virtues of plainness. This might not necessarily please the picture editors of the national media who always prefer shiny colourful buildings, but it’s to be welcomed as a spur to ‘good ordinary’.

And as for the likely winner – since only one of those I had earmarked for the shortlist actually made it there, never have I felt less able even to guess at what the judges will go for on October 15, which tells you how wide open it is this year. Good luck to them all.