Smallest rooms on the Stirling Prize shortlist

There may not be a Stirling Prize for washrooms, but no building with nasty loos will reach the shortlist. So how do the toilets in this year’s final six shape up?

The new pier has reinvigorated Hastings’ seaside promenade with a significant public amenity.
The new pier has reinvigorated Hastings’ seaside promenade with a significant public amenity.

‘Bathrooms have to be appropriate to the building and its function’, says John McElgunn, partner at Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, architect of the World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre (WCEC) at the British Museum. ‘Domestically, they are a place to relax, whereas in the cultural or commercial environment they must be much more functional.’

While bathrooms are an essential requirement in almost all buildings, they are often dealt with as a box ticking exercise of pragmatic solutions. Accessibility, circulation, services – tick, tick, tick.

However, the toilet is the one room in most buildings that nearly all users experience, and one that can often make a big impact – positively or negatively. And as every critic knows, a visit to the bathroom of a building can provide great insight into the architect’s mindset and the overall quality of the project. You can guarantee, therefore, that the RIBA judges who drew up the 2017 Stirling Prize shortlist will have taken a peek in the loos before choosing their picks for best building.

At a visitor attraction, the toilet is often one of first places people experience

From functional to relaxing, there are different strategies for bathrooms across building sectors, and the six Stirling shortlisted projects make up the entire range, varying from workplace to educational, public to residential. These award-winning spaces require excellence in every room, including the bathroom, but as McElgunn points out, appropriateness is key. Glamour and comfort aren’t always the best fit, sometimes space, robustness and efficiency are what make the best bog. 

Although the Barrett’s Grove housing scheme, British Museum WCEC, City Campus at the City of Glasgow College (RIBAJ, October 2017), Command of the Oceans, Hastings Pier, and Juergen Teller’s Photography Studio will be some of the most publicised buildings this year, their loos will mostly go unmentioned. But for those spaces that are vying to claim the UK’s top architectural prize, we examine these often-overlooked rooms, starting with the more public projects.

‘At a visitor attraction, the toilet is often one of first places people experience,’ says Brendan Higgins, project architect at Baynes and Mitchell Architects. ‘This is especially true at Command of the Oceans, as the dockyard is a family attraction.’

Seven gender-free toilet spaces are indulged with wide access windows and large picture windows to the sea beyond.
Seven gender-free toilet spaces are indulged with wide access windows and large picture windows to the sea beyond.

Here the architect worked hard to create washrooms that were suitable for the museum and this meant facilities that were cost effective and hard wearing – a vinyl floor and coved skirting to make it easy to clean, along with solid and robust fittings. 

‘The client didn’t really care how luxurious the toilets were,’ continues Higgins. ‘It was about them being practical, accessible and easy to maintain. We delivered this, while considering the overall aesthetic of the project.’

City of Glasgow College by Reiach & Hall Architects and Michael Laird Architects, and dRMM’s Hastings Pier, are two other projects that had to be extremely robust, but the pier toilet, in particular, was designed to be enjoyed. Here the WC was an important part of the strategy to create a well-serviced platform for events, as the provision was a requirement of the project’s lottery funding.

  • At Amin Taha and Groupwork’s Barratts Grove housing, the rich, warm, timber cladding outside the bathroom is counter pointed by 2001-like stark whiteness within – tile free to cope with structural movement.
    At Amin Taha and Groupwork’s Barratts Grove housing, the rich, warm, timber cladding outside the bathroom is counter pointed by 2001-like stark whiteness within – tile free to cope with structural movement.
  • At Amin Taha and Groupwork’s Barratts Grove housing, the rich, warm, timber cladding outside the bathroom is counter pointed by 2001-like stark whiteness within – tile free to cope with structural movement.
    At Amin Taha and Groupwork’s Barratts Grove housing, the rich, warm, timber cladding outside the bathroom is counter pointed by 2001-like stark whiteness within – tile free to cope with structural movement.
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‘We wanted to create a better experience than the usual public toilets,’ says dRMM director Alex de Rijke. ‘We kept the space generous and created a large window that looks over the deck at the sea and St Leonards in the distance.’

Although the reflectivity of this window is normal, its height and the outside light mean no-one can see into the gender-neutral toilet. Inside, the seven individual cubicles (including one that is accessible), each contain their own toilet and sink – which allowed the bathroom lobby to be accessed directly from the cultural area. 

‘The pier is a leveling experience, anyone can come on to it. It is deliberately egalitarian; that includes the toilets which are easily accessed, gender-free individual rooms,’ explains de Rijke.

Much like the rest of the pier, the fixtures and fittings are durable and strong, with a natural organic linoleum floor and all plumbing within the timber frame.

Sturdiness and usability are also key at the British Museum, as McElgunn points out: ‘Our project is not a beautiful gallery. It is an industrial space and the toilets are appropriately straightforward.’

Although the project cost £135 million, the bathrooms were a victim of value engineering as they were in one of the last of 23 packages to be delivered – all too often the case with high value projects, says McElgunn. 

Thankfully the plan was already finalised, allowing the architects to create a functional space for staff, with easy maintenance again a priority. However, the finish is not quite up to the standard McElgunn would have liked. ‘The doors, for example, are a little flimsy and close with a bit of a bang. They could have been more polished and glide to a stop,’ he says.

This toilet tour now brings us to the two most domestic projects on the shortlist. At Amin Taha and Groupwork’s Barratts Grove the bathroom design was driven by the choice of structural material. Each of 13 bathrooms were designed to anticipate any differential movement in the CLT superstructure and avoid failure to the tanking as a result of cracking, which can occur with conventional tiles.

  • A strong industrial aesthetic mixed with the discreet luxury of brass sanitaryware reigns at 6A’s studio for Juergen Teller.
    A strong industrial aesthetic mixed with the discreet luxury of brass sanitaryware reigns at 6A’s studio for Juergen Teller.
  • The sauna window facing a brick wall is a decadent touch.
    The sauna window facing a brick wall is a decadent touch.
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The bathrooms were therefore designed as wet rooms, tanked fully to ceiling height around showers and waist height in other areas. A layer of rubber was applied in a continuous sheet to reduce joints and possibility for leakage. 

While this is a highly practical solution, at 6a’s Latimer Road Photography Studio it is materiality that drove design. This has three bathrooms: an accessible, public shower room in the first building, a toilet adjacent to the communal kitchen on the ground floor of the third building, and a shower room above it.

The driving design principle in all three bathrooms was to use surface-mounted fixings and to express inherent material qualities. Vents for air extract are simply a composition of holes drilled into the concrete beams, avoiding the need for grilles. Blockwork is left mostly exposed and covered by patches of tiles only where required. The sink, cistern and loo are all fixed to the wall with visible metal brackets – nothing is integrated or hidden. The cement tiles introduce pattern and colour, and were manufactured specially for the space.

The sauna includes a large window... users are simultaneously on show and out of view

However, while stainless steel fittings are used in the two public spaces, the shower room, arguably the most private space of the studio, has a richness, with polished brass fittings.

‘It is the last space you encounter, tucked away at the very back of the building, and contains Juergen’s sauna,’ says 6a’s Aram Mooradian. ‘Unusually, the sauna includes a large window that looks across at the brick elevation of the neighbouring house. Users are simultaneously on show and out of view’. 

This is undoubtedly a beautiful bathroom, which would likely be competing with Hastings’ Pier if the Stirling Prize was judged on bathrooms alone. And while these bathrooms are something a little special, the major take­away from the toilets of this year’s Stirling shortlist is that this room must be appropriate for the building’s overall usage.

Toilets are essential to most buildings and worth concentrating on – planning well and specifying efficiently. Like most, I only really remember a toilet if it is bad. So although this room may not win anyone a Stirling Prize, a bad one could lose it.

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