What the shortlist for the RIBA Sterling Prize 2019 tells us about architecture today

09 Oct 19 | Laurie Handcock

The Stirling Prize, to my mind, captures an architectural milieu more focused on changing the world and on the impact of architecture, than on the actual agents of change themselves. To outsiders, that can make the Prize feel both wildly exciting, and totally obscure. The criteria for the Stirling Prize are somewhat obscure, and in some cases, choosing a winner not just between apples, pears and plums, but between apples, three hours of interpretative dance, and a polystyrene model of Pope Innocent II.

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Following the announcement of one of the highest accolades in architecture, we take a look at what the 2019 shortlist for the RIBA Sterling Prize tells us about outstanding architecture today.

Architecture is a broad church; in some cases, that is literally what it is. Over the last decade, RIBA have handed the Stirling Prize to a reconstructed pier; a theatre; an office development; two art galleries; two schools; some delicate keyhole surgery to a ruined castle; a laboratory; and a cancer treatment centre. These buildings have ranged enormously in size, budget and intention. In some cases, entrants almost extend beyond being architecture.

The Stirling Prize, to my mind, captures an architectural milieu more focused on changing the world and on the impact of architecture, than on the actual agents of change themselves. To outsiders, that can make the Prize feel both wildly exciting, and totally obscure. The criteria for the Stirling Prize are somewhat obscure, and in some cases, choosing a winner not just between apples, pears and plums, but between apples, three hours of interpretative dance, and a polystyrene model of Pope Innocent II.

This year is no exception. Interestingly, there has been an increasing focus on sustainable design. In the case of the collaboratively designed ‘Cork House’, sustainability is found in its materials, in its environmental performance. Mikhail Riches’ Goldsmith Street, by comparison, is about bringing Passivhaus standards, and a vision of ‘sustainable communities’ to a larger market, within a development of around 100 dwellings.

One of the other shortlisted developments, London Bridge Station, a massive development with a vast carbon footprint may not look by comparison particularly sustainable. However, in my view it contains the same sort of visionary thinking. I had the pleasure of working on London Bridge Station. To me, the most exciting thing about this project is its ability to see how architecture and urban investment can deliver real change to the lives of the people who interact with it.

Compared to some of the smaller, more agile designs on the shortlist, London Bridge is a relatively old design, with a masterplanning basis in the late 1980s Thameslink project, and a consent dating to 2011. But this is part of the challenge that many on the shortlist have executed so well: embracing both functionality and timeless design. And London Bridge will need to continue to respond to this challenge. Modelling was undertaken to ensure it would still deliver for the passengers of 2080. That, for me, is the sustainable vision of London Bridge Station.

Does it make it more valuable, more innovative and visionary, by virtue of its scale, than Cork House, or Goldsmith Street? How can one compare its eight-year-old vision to the more immediately appreciable elegance and beauty of something as delicate as Fielden Fowles’ Weston building, at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park? There isn’t an easy answer, but perhaps there’s more interconnectivity than meets the eye to this smorgasbord of architectural design.

Laurie Handcock Director,Heritage,Townscape
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