‘It sounded crazy’: lavish six-story hymn to social interaction is Britain’s best new building | Stirling Prize


After more than a year of Zoom tutorials and online lectures, students are back to learning face-to-face – and nowhere more than at Kingston University Townhouse, a cathedral of interaction. social which has been named the UK’s best new building.

A lavish £ 50million resort, the 2021 RIBA Stirling Prize winner is a six-story hymn to one of the top reasons for going to college: meeting other people. It’s a place of wide, sociable stairs, wide public terraces, and open-plan study areas that overlook dance studios and performance spaces. In its fluid generosity, it is the exact opposite of the usual institutional world of compartmentalized university departments protected by magnetic cards. Rather, it is a welcoming and transparent place, where even the public is free to wander up and down.

“This is a theater for life – a storehouse of ideas,” said Lord Norman Foster, speaking on behalf of the Stirling Prize jury. “In this very original architectural work, silent reading, strong performance, research and learning can coexist with delight. This is not an easy task. “

Front view… the award makes it a treble for Grafton Architects, based in Dublin. Photography: Ed Reeve

The project is the work of Grafton Architects, the Dublin-based firm founded in 1978 by Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, who have enjoyed a series of recent successes. They won both the Pritzker Prize and the RIBA Gold Medal last year – the Stirling now completes architecture’s top three honors. As usual, the modest duo attribute the power of the project to the radical vision of the client.

“It seemed completely crazy to bring all of these different uses together in one building,” Farrell said during a tour of the townhouse last year. “We loved the ambition to mix things up that are generally incompatible. The building takes pleasure in these abrasions.

Placing a noisy container of dynamic, pushed bodies in the center of a bookcase might sound like madness, but so far it seems to be working. Quiet study areas are stacked around the cubic performance space, with tiered seating on three sides, creating a theater of multi-story views and connections. A wide staircase, wide enough for walking and chatting, weaves its way through a six-story atrium, reaching a cafe at the top with views of Hampton Court Palace and the River Thames.

Diversion… study spaces give way to views of Hampton Court Palace and the Thames.
Diversion… study spaces give way to views of Hampton Court Palace and the Thames. Photograph: Ice Clancy / RIBA / PA

In the words of Kingston’s Vice-Chancellor Steven Spier, an architect by training, part of the goal was to see “a softening of the line between the dress and the city”. The welcome to the public begins at street level, where a white concrete colonnade scrolls 200m along the sidewalk, creating a deep portico where tables and benches have made a popular meeting place – or simply a place to wait for the bus, sheltered from the rain.

Columns rise to the full height of the building, supporting a spectacular cascade of balconies and terraces, creating further opportunities to relax, socialize or study outdoors. It’s a bold beacon for Kingston, where many students are the first in their families to attend university, sending an important signal, says Spier, that “world-class architecture is not just the preserve of the city. Russell Group ”.

The project was a surprise winner. Most of the bets were on the Cambridge Central Mosque. Designed by Marks Barfield, architects of the London Eye, the £ 23million building contains one of the most stunning interiors built in recent years, with wooden ‘trees’ branching out to form a wavy geometric ceiling.

A little stretch… the dance studio.
A little stretch… the dance studio. Photograph: Ed Reeve / RIBA / PA

Perhaps it was not considered original enough: a mosque in Rome, designed by Paolo Portoghesi in the 1990s, has a similar ceiling structure, while there are also distinct echoes of the work. by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban. Yet the whole history of architecture is a story of copying and sampling, and the Cambridge Mosque is something distinctly to it.

Other projects in the running include the ultra-thin Tintagel walkway, the Windermere Jetty Museum, housing for key workers in Cambridge and a striking ‘Neo-Neolithic’ stone apartment building in east London, which the council tried to get it demolished. It was an impressive lineup, but something was missing. At a time when the built environment is responsible for around 40% of global carbon emissions, the importance of modernizing existing structures is increasingly crucial to avert climate catastrophe.

While the gong goes to a beautiful concrete concerto (for which no incorporated carbon footprint has been carried out), one wonders when we will see a legitimately recognized renovation.

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