Six schemes, diverse as always, are within touching distance of the coveted Stirling Prize
The six shortlisted buildings for the RIBA Stirling Prize have been announced. They range from a tiny house, the 44m2 Cork House, where material innovation has been taken to the nth degree, to the huge undertaking of the £1 billion London Bridge Station, designed by Grimshaw.
Other shortlisted schemes come from across the UK. RSHP’s Macallan Distillery and Visitor Experience is in Moray, Scotland; Feilden Fowles’ Weston Gallery for Yorkshire Sculpture Park joins a seam of impressive buildings in this Sculpture Triangle around Wakefield; and in Leicestershire at Nevill Holt Opera Witherford Watson Mann reprises the remarkable muscular conservation that won it the Stirling Prize in 2013 for Astley Castle. Finally, in Norwich, a major housing scheme for the council, Goldsmith Street, all designed to Passivhaus standard, has won Mikhail Riches, with Cathy Hawley, a place on the Stirling shortlist.
There is no doubt that the most visible of the projects is London Bridge Station. It is the fourth busiest station in the UK, with over 48 million passengers going through it each year. Regular travellers have lived through years of disruption and construction with complex routes through the station changing as Grimshaw performed its ‘open heart surgery’ as the station remained open. But it now it seems a miraculous transformation. It is a great step up from other Network Rail projects by the practice, the far more clunky Reading and Newport Stations. After a year of Gold Medal celebrations could this finally be the chance for Grimshaw to win the Stirling? Famously its Eden Project was pipped to the prize by Wilkinson Eyre’s Rotherham Magna Centre in 2001. What might count against it is the cost, at £11,587/m2, though the expense of last year’s Stirling winner Bloomberg London was rumoured to be higher than that.
There is a really strong material and textural theme running through the projects, with the timber and roughly textured concrete at the Weston; the steel, stone and wood of the building within a stableblock of the Nevill Holt Opera House; and the structural and finishes approach that mean the Cork House really is what it says on the tin. Goldsmith Street could be dismissed as another bricky set of houses but the details of set-back panels and the glazed pantiles work really hard to make a pleasant, delicately-detailed street scene. The sense of the handcrafted is a healthy kick back against the smooth super-panel systems that allow so many large-scale projects to be craned into place, but often leave a sense of humanity lacking.
What the beautiful images of the buildings can obscure is the very clear pattern of ownership. All the Stirling shortlisted projects have been commissioned by people and organisations with a long term stake in their success. They are primarily owner occupiers with the inevitable interest in performance and maintenance. The sun path diagrams and Passivhaus design on Goldsmith Street show how Norwich City Council is considering not just the maintenance of its estate but the costs – and pleasures – of its social housing tenants and residents.
Notable absences from the list are the famous names. Home grown Thomas Heatherwick did not make it onto the shortlist with his Coal Drop Yard, one of a small number of building projects by his studio in the UK and a relatively undemonstrative one despite its kissing roof. Nor are projects by the revered Peter Zumthor (the Secular Retreat for Living Architecture) and well thought-of Kengo Kuma (V&A Dundee) – UK projects built at long distance from the venerable practitioners that don’t match up to other, more local buildings. It is hard being an international star, building well abroad, especially when context and detail are often obscured with distance. The other star architect who didn’t make the shortlist was Sir John Soane, ably abetted by Julian Harrap Architects and Jestico + Whiles bringing back to life Ealing’s Pitzhanger Manor. It is great to welcome a list that avoids being starstruck.