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July 21 2012

Stirling prize shortlist revealed

A theatre, a laboratory, a bank tower, an art gallery, a cancer centre and the Olympic Stadium are in the running for Britain's foremost architectural award

Simple. Restrained. Simple and restrained. Possibly also sober, plain and very much not iconic. This year's RIBA Stirling prize shortlist reflects the zeitgeist of our straitened times, with their mistrust of extravagance and waste, more than any previous. Architects such as David Chipperfield, Stanton Williams and O'Donnell + Tuomey, who never knowingly overdecorate, feature prominently.

Rem Koolhaas's practice, OMA, better known for its amazing cantilevers and improbable collisions of form, offers as its two shortlisted projects assemblies of intelligently arranged boxes. Even the Olympic Stadium, usually an occasion for rhetorical displays of national pride, is notable for what it leaves out and what it is not – it is not the Beijing bird's nest and uses considerably less steel than its Chinese predecessor.

Zaha Hadid, victorious for the last two years and not much interested in restraint, is absent. Her most likely contender, the Olympic Aquatic Centre, was not entered, probably so that it can be submitted in another year when the ungainly wings containing temporary seating – widely agreed to be the building's worst feature – are removed.

None of which means that all the projects are necessarily cheap. The stadium, for one, is not. Nor that they are insipid. Chipperfield's Hepworth Gallery has a rock-like obduracy that is anything but. But they are all works that avoid the sugar rush of instant spectacle and which, by holding back a little, help you better experience the arts, drama, landscape or sport in and around them.

The judges, led by the architect and former Royal Academy president Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, will have one or two big decisions. The first is whether to give it to the stadium, which is by far the largest and most significant project – in terms of the worldwide attention it will draw – on the list. It is a handsome thing, hard to ignore, with the interesting idea that it can be partly dismantled after the Games, so as to avoid being the usual post-Olympic white elephant. (Even if, due to political complications, this possibility is unlikely to fully exploited.) The judges may want to recognise the Olympics in some way, and make up for the failure last year to award the prize to the much-admired Velodrome.

If not the stadium, they will have to decide which is the best of the other five simple-and-restrained projects. A bank tower? Ummm, not very now. A Maggie's Cancer Centre? Like the Oscars, the Stirling prize can be attracted to serious illness, so much so that they awarded another Maggie's the prize a few years ago, but they may not feel like repeating themselves.

The judges should, of course, be swayed not at all by questions such as who and what has won before, and whether a bank, a stadium or a refuge for cancer sufferers would make the architectural profession look more lovable. They should simply decide which is the best building. Here, the decision is a tight one, as there are no real turkeys on the list and both the Hepworth Gallery and the Maggie's Centre, for example, do nice things in relating the inner life of the buildings to their surroundings.

My choice would be the Lyric theatre in Belfast, a view slightly tinged by the feeling that it would be good to look beyond the usual names and places, but mostly driven by the belief that its arrangement of materials and space, in the service of the building's purpose, are as good as anybody's. But, in an outstandingly sane year, when there are no outrageous exclusions or inclusions, any of the others would also be a good choice.

My bet is that it will come down to the stadium versus Chipperfield, with the stadium winning.

The RIBA Stirling prize will be awarded on 13 October

The six shortlisted buildings

2012 Olympic Stadium, London Populous
Odds 5/1

The Olympic stadium got some sniffy reviews when its design was unveiled five years ago – too plain, too ordinary was the general view. Now, plainness, simplicity and its economical use of steel are seen as virtues, as is the fact that it is partly demountable. In theory at least, this should make it easier to reuse after the Games. It is also a handsome, confident-looking structure. The only problems are that its price was not quite as plain and ordinary as its appearance implies, while protracted struggles to find a new use after the Games suggest that it is not as adaptable as all that. These struggles are probably more to do with politics than design, however.
Previous form (as HOK Sport, Populous's former name): Arsenal's Emirates Stadium and sliding roof over Centre Court at Wimbledon.

Maggie's centre, Gartnavel, Glasgow OMA
Odds: 9/2

With its other shortlisted project, OMA shows it can do nice. This is one of the series of Maggie's cancer centres, where leading architects design places where patients and their relatives can come for advice, counselling, company or simply peace and quiet. They were conceived by the architecture critic Charles Jencks and his wife, Maggie Keswick, who died of cancer, as antidotes to the architecturally depressing spaces in which most treatment takes place. OMA's centre is less assertive than previous centres such as Zaha Hadid's in Fife, or the Richard Rogers-designed building in London that won the Stirling in 2009. Instead, it focuses attention on the landscaping, which is designed by Jencks's and Keswick's daughter, Lily.

New Court, Rothschild Bank, London OMA (with Allies & Morrison
and Pringle Brandon)
Odds: 4/1

Given that bankers are only slightly more popular than child-abusers, it would take some nerve by the Stirling judges to give this first prize, even though Rothschild likes to protest its difference from the casino banks of ill repute. On architectural merit alone, it is a contender: it seeks to create the headquarters for a powerful financial institution, while also offering the world outside an arresting open space off a narrow City of London street. It is intricate and sometimes playful, even if not entirely politically correct. OMA is the practice founded by Rem Koolhaas, which, despite international renown, has not troubled the Stirling judges until now.
Previous form: Central China TV HQ, Beijing; Seattle Central Library


The Sainsbury Laboratory, Cambridge
Stanton Williams
Odds: 7/2

A place where "world-leading" scientists can study plants in the setting of the University of Cambridge Botanic Garden. As well as fulfilling taxing technical demands, the architects Stanton Williams aimed to achieve a "collegial" environment conducive to the sharing of ideas and knowledge. The result is an L-shape, like two sides of a cloister or a college court, that is also open to the landscape. The architectural approach is rectilinear, well-built, with sharp, straight lines offsetting the natural surroundings. The structure has a certain solidity, while also creating a series of layers through which light and views are filtered.
Previous form: University of the Arts, King's Cross; Tower Hill Square (public space next to Tower of London)

Lyric Theatre, Belfast O'Donnell + Tuomey
Odds: 4/1

A beautifully considered and well-made theatre by the Dublin-based O'Donnell + Tuomey, who were shortlisted last year for their An Gaeláras cultural centre in Derry. The design is about progressing from the city outside through the foyers and bars to the performance space at the heart of the building, with views to a river and greenery. It uses a lot of brick and timber, but avoids the worthiness that sometimes goes with these materials. Belfast doesn't always make headlines for its architectural quality and its new Titanic museum is a contender for the Carbuncle Cup – Building Design magazine's prize for the year's worst building. But the Lyric is on the Stirling list on merit.
Previous form: National Photographic Archive, Dublin; Photographers' Gallery London

The Hepworth, Wakefield David Chipperfield Architects
Odds: 3/1

A sober, impressive art gallery named after the Wakefield-born sculptor Barbara Hepworth. It is designed by David Chipperfield, who has several Stirling near-misses to his name and one win, in 2007. His strengths are the attention he pays to light, space and material, but the judges usually end up going for something more spectacular or else for projects that are seen to have more social significance, such as schools or housing. Set next to water and to historic industrial buildings, the Hepworth seeks to address its site and emulate their Yorkshire toughness with a structure of pigmented concrete.
Previous form: Neues Museum, Berlin (shortlisted for Stirling in 2010); Museum of Modern Literature, Marbach, Germany (winner 2007)


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June 20 2012

RIBA announces 50 best buildings on longlist for Stirling prize

Olympic stadium, Belfast suburban home and Kevin McCloud design in competition for 2012 top architectural award

The 80,000-seat Olympic stadium in east London will vie against a rear extension to a suburban Belfast home for a place on the shortlist for the Stirling prize, the annual building of the year award.

In a sign of the tough business climate gripping British architecture, the longlist of the 50 best buildings in the UK features the modest domestic project as well as the centrepiece for the Olympics.

The Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba) said the list of the award-winning buildings "revealed a trend which could be coined austerity chic".

The arena that will stage the Olympic opening ceremony on 27 July has received a lukewarm reception in some quarters but is considered a contender for the £20,000 prize as the only truly large British building aiming at the Riba award this year.

It is likely to face competition from other award winners, including the Hepworth art gallery, in Wakefield, designed by Sir David Chipperfield, and the new Lyric Theatre, in Belfast, designed by O'Donnell and Tuomey.

There is evidence that there is still some money around, albeit in predictable quarters: the award winners include a lavish London headquarters for the merchant bank NM Rothschild finished in travertine, oak, aluminium and glass to designs by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas.

Kevin McCloud, the Grand Designs presenter who used to front the Stirling prize award live on Channel 4, could this year appear on the shortlist after a housing scheme he developed in Swindon was granted a Riba award. The project known as The Triangle, and designed by the Birmingham architect Glenn Howells, features 42 homes in an updated terrace format and cost £4.2m.

Beside the seaside there were awards for the Turner Contemporary art gallery in Margate, Kent, also designed by Chipperfield, and the Festival House on Blackpool's Golden Mile, a wedding venue commissioned by the council to allow tourists and others to tie the knot in front of a precisely framed view of the Blackpool Tower.

The list also reflects the continuing programme of Maggie's Centres for cancer patients, established in the memory of Maggie Jencks, wife of the architecture critic Charles Jencks. At an earlier date Frank Gehry, Richard Rogers and Zaha Hadid designed some of the centre's buildings; the latest award-winning additions are in Swansea, designed by the firm of the late Japanese star architect Kisho Kurokawa, and in Glasgow, designed by Rem Koolhaas.

In Scotland there were awards for reworkings of the National Museum of Scotland, and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, both in Edinburgh.

But Hadid, granted a damehood in the Queen's birthday honours, was overlooked for her Riverside Transport Museum, in Glasgow, with the building failing even to make it on to the list of the 23 best buildings in Scotland for the last year.

"There was a bit of a stooshie [fuss] because it was by Dame Zaha, but the argument was it doesn't matter about the name of the architect, what is important is the quality of the building," said Neil Baxter, secretary of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland.

International awards went to the reinvention of a Barcelona bullring as the Las Arenas shopping and leisure complex by Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, and a new Centre Pompidou, in Metz, by Shigeru Ban Architects, Jean de Gastines Architects and Gumuchdjian Architects.

The winner of the Stirling prize will be announced on 13 October in Manchester.


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May 01 2010

Maggie's Cancer Centres

Plans are afoot for six more innovative Maggie's cancer treatment centres, but do they really need such star architects to build them?

Architecture is a portentous art. It likes to think of itself as a matter of life and death, or more important. Its origins are in temples, pyramids, tombs and churches and, because it usually outlives its makers, it carries ideas of immortality. Yet when it comes to detail – to one or another architect's dedication to a particular kind of angle, or curve, or squiggle – it can seem quite trivial. How much does it matter what shape buildings are?

The Maggie's Cancer Caring Centres put the seriousness of architecture to the test. They are notable for two things: offering ways of helping cancer sufferers beyond medical treatment, and doing so in places designed by leading contemporary architects. They assume that there is some connection between whatever aesthetic magic an architect can weave, and making victims of a dread disease feel better.

Six centres have been built, five in Scottish cities and one in London. Each is singular, designed by architects ranging from the respected – the Glaswegian practice Page\Park and Richard Murphy from Edinburgh – to the stellar: Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid and Richard Rogers. Six more were revealed last week for English and Welsh cities, as well as another in Glasgow, by architects including Rem Koolhaas's OMA, Foreign Office Architects, Piers Gough and Sir Richard MacCormack. Each centre stands in the grounds of a hospital with a major cancer hospital, while asserting an independent identity.

The centres are named after their inventor, Maggie Keswick, who, after being told her cancer was terminal, reflected on "the awful interior space" where she received the news. Also the places where she had to wait for treatment: "overhead (sometimes even neon) lighting, interior spaces with no views out and miserable seating against the walls all contribute to extreme mental and physical enervation. Patients who arrive relatively hopeful soon start to wilt."

She realised there was a need for places not just for medical treatment, but also to share fears and hopes with others, to receive comfort, company and advice, to reflect and pass time. Cancer sufferers can need help with anything from getting wigs to raising loans, and the Maggie's Centres would provide formal and informal networks for such support. She was a landscape designer and writer, and her husband Charles Jencks was and is a hyper-energetic and highly sociable architectural writer, fascinated with theories about the cosmic significance of buildings. In her lifetime they started the Maggie's Centres idea which has expanded since her death, according to Jencks, beyond anything she imagined. A glittering range of celebrities – Michelle Obama, Bob Geldof, Sam Taylor-Wood, Sarah Brown, Nigella Lawson – have lined up to support the project.

On entering any Maggie's Centre you can see the power of the idea. They are typically spacious and light-filled, but also domestic in feeling, with eclectic and colourful choices of furniture and art. They give views of nature, of the river Tay in Dundee, or of Dan Pearson-designed pocket gardens in Hammersmith. There are no reception desks but, in the centre, a living space and a kitchen. Nobody wears uniforms, and you can't tell who is staff, who a patient, who a patient's relative. It is what Jencks, who has always loved inventing tags, calls "kitchenism", also "hybrid" architecture. The centres are, as he puts it, "a house which is not a home, a collective hospital which is not an institution, a church which is not religious, and an art gallery which is not a museum."

Thus far, the value of the centres is clear. No sentient being could argue with the benefits of light, air, nature, the rejection of an institutional feel or what staff and patients keep calling the "calm" atmosphere. What is less obvious is the contribution made by the creative statements of the architects.

Doubts on this score crystallised in 2006, when Gordon Brown opened the Fife centre designed by Zaha Hadid. Inside it is bright, white-walled, and focused on an uplifting view of greenery amid the otherwise grim campus of Kirkcaldy's large Victorian hospital. On the outside it is black, angular and forbidding, prompting comparisons to Stealth bombers and Darth Vader. "It makes for an uncomfortably confusing first encounter," wrote one critic. If your life has been turned upside down by a frightening diagnosis, do you really want to confront challenging architecture as well? "It has been said, including by one of our trustees", says Charles Jencks, "that it would be better to have one design and franchise it." Would it?

People at Maggie's are adamant that distinctive, expressive, artistic architecture does help. Laura Lee, the chief executive, who gives every appearance of being level-headed, says, "I believe with a passion that each individual designer gives each community its own special space. We cannot become a McDonald's of cancer care." She also says that "a building that is living, vibrant, interesting and curious-making is a signpost to the outside world. It is a place to come to and not a place to be ashamed of. People with cancer often have the sense that friends are crossing the street to avoid them, so this is important."

Ruth McCabe, who runs Maggie's Fife, says that people "can come here very sad and upset. The lightness can lift their mood. People remark on the light and space all the time." The exterior of Hadid's building is "tough" but "we talk about its blackness and hardness as a metaphor." "The fact that it's different," she also says, "is a good way to start a conversation." Jencks argues that "cancer patients know that it's about life and death" so it's important that the architecture of the buildings is serious. "It's got to take risks. It's got to be about something. It can't just sit on its ass and be anodyne." He adds the not insignificant detail that famous architects help with the fundraising. Maggie's, he says, found this out by accident, after Jencks's old friend Frank Gehry designed the Dundee centre, which opened in 2003. Before that less famous architects had been used.

These might seem like oblique arguments, but the evidence of the centres to date is that they're right. More than that, the Maggie's projects bring the best out of their architects. The progression from the black shell of Hadid's centre to its luminous interior is indeed transforming. Frank Gehry decided that his project did not need "too much architecture", and returned to the more direct style of his earlier career, before the Bilbao Guggenheim typecast him as a maestro of extravagance. Rogers Stirk Harbour, the practice founded by Richard Rogers, is noted more for its big statements than humane and intimate interiors, but the latter is what they have created in the Hammersmith centre.

Yet it's hard to escape the feeling that, as Maggie's grows, it would be a good thing if the level of architectural gesture became less supercharged. Of the new batch of designs the most appealing is a Glasgow centre by Rem Koolhaas's practice OMA, a simple courtyarded design that makes clever use of changes of levels, and has none of the signature tics of a famous architect. The most dubious is the late Kisho Kurokawa's design for Swansea, an awkward-looking spiral that makes grandiose allusions to galaxies and the cosmos. Somewhere in between is Piers Gough's in Nottingham, where a straightforward, house-like organisation is given a perky exterior formed of interlocking ovals.

It would also be a good thing if in future the net were spread wider, bringing in younger architects, and also practices that know how to achieve their effects more subtly. Maggie's Centres are no longer extraordinary one-offs, but present a model for caring that could be repeated everywhere, including for the many terrible diseases other than cancer which currently have nothing like a Maggie's. The buildings for such centres should always be special and singular, but they no longer need to look like items from an exhibition of architecture.

The Architecture of Hope: Maggie's Cancer Caring Centres by Charles Jencks and Edwin Heathcote, celebrating the history of Maggie's Centres, is published by Frances Lincoln. Contact Maggie's at maggiescentres.org


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