All these buildings are strong contenders, but it’s a selection that fails to engage with society’s most urgent problems, says Edwin Heathcote
The Stirling prize has a pretty strange record, not exactly of getting it wrong (though it often does that) but of answering the wrong question. In the year when architecture suddenly came storming onto the front pages in the awful, blackened form of Grenfell Tower – and every journalist suddenly became an expert on cladding – the shortlist fails to include any social housing or any hope that anything is being done. Of course, that may also be attributable to no decent social housing being built, but I don’t think that’s actually the case.
It also fails to include the two big cultural blockbusters: Tate Modern’s Switch House (Herzog & De Meuron) and John Pawson’s Design Museum. I happen to like the former (though many don’t) and the latter looks a little like a lost opportunity, so perhaps neither should have won, but surely they should a least have been on a list aimed at engaging the public in architectural debate?
Which leaves us with a rather curious list. The closest thing to a blockbuster is RSH+P’s British Museum World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre, which opened, oddly, three years ago. It does feature a huge (though rather dull) exhibition space but is mostly about logistics, conservation and back of house. It is also very clearly a Graham Stirk building and one with little or nothing to do with Rogers. This is a generational shift away from the established big names.
Then there’s Amin Taha’s Barrett’s Grove in impossibly gentrified Stoke Newington. It has wicker shopping baskets for balconies, so it looks like it’s on the way back from the organic market, but it is otherwise a lovely, slightly Flemish apartment block. It won't win because private housing never really does. Barrett’s Grove is a CLT structure clad in perforated brick and dRMM’s Hastings Pier is another CLT building. This one I really like. Clearly massively restrained in budget, dRMM have had to respond to a burnt-out skeleton to reimagine the Victorian pier of a shabby seaside town for an age of austerity. They have done it brilliantly. Instead of the usual tat – the pleasure arcades and fairground rides – the architects have reinterpreted the pier as a piece of civic space, a piazza that seems to flow on the waves. The concertina-walled structure that sits on it is good, but this is really a platform – a flexible, adaptable space that could accommodate a fish market, a fun fair, a concert or a public protest. Superb.
At an entirely different scale is the City of Glasgow College – City Campus by Reiach & Hall Architects and Michael Laird Architects. This, a continuation of the architects’ earlier project for the college, is massive in scale and severely modernist in detail and conception. It is a kind of northern European neo-modern – well done, sophisticated, perhaps a little alienating. It comes across as a bit Antonioni.
Command of the Oceans by Baynes and Mitchell Architects for Chatham Historic Dockyard in Kent has a kind of Brexit title, a throwback name and, in a way, a throwback architecture. Its design echoes the gabled docks buildings and, in its blend of conservation and new build, it’s a serious, well-executed scheme, quite understated. Which is, in a way, a bit of a theme here. Zaha is gone, parametricism has somehow failed to take over the world and none of these has been built by robots. The backlash against the sci-fi blockbuster starts here.
Finally there’s 6a’s studio for photographer Juergen Teller. Situated only a few blocks away from Grenfell Tower, this is the most striking, the most beautiful and the most accomplished building on the shortlist. It sits between two generic buildings and stands its ground with muscle-bound ease. The long, narrow site is inhabited by three structures with courtyards in between and the whole thing is an exercise in controlling light and bringing it down into the spaces. It is a curiosity, a building with an industrial feel, executed in raw concrete with factory-like clockwork walls and deep beams – yet its scale is deceptive. What appears epic is actually relatively domestic. It sits somewhere between Switzerland, Brazil and the Smithsons: not very English at all, but then again maybe a little bit. In the first shots of the interior, Teller was photographed inside naked on a donkey, probably the most memorable architectural photography I have seen. But this is a very photogenic building, an outstanding design and I think it will win.
But. There’s always a but with the Stirling. After last year’s winner Caruso St John’s Newport Street Gallery for Damien Hirst, will the Stirling jury have had enough of serious, well-crafted and very good architecture? Will it be seen as time to move outside the rarefied London art world? Is it time for another surprise? There isn't a real dud on the list, so the jury should be spared going too far wrong. But this is an interesting list. It has omissions and it utterly fails to address society’s most urgent needs and it shines a deceptively good light across the nation’s architecture.
The Stirling prize winner will be announced on 31 October 2017