Presented in the name of maverick British architect James Stirling, an architect’s architect and lover of cultural depth and historical reference who died in 1992, the annual Stirling Prize is the feather in the Royal Institute of British Architects’ (RIBA) awards cap. Aimed at provoking debate among the cultured rather than architects themselves, the prize ceremony has been televised since 1999 - this year as part of BBC 2’s Culture Show, the shortlist presents a varied menu for the press to tuck in to.
2010’s list of six buildings by British architects include two abroad – in Rome and Berlin, and four local – two in London, one in Guildford and one in Oxford. All except one are placed in urban contexts, to which the response ranges from a minutely detailed engagement with existing fabric to a sitelessness unseen since the high times of International Modernism. The two most well known architects on the list represent these extremes: David Chipperfield (Stirling Prize 2007 winner with another German building) with his €233million transformation of the Neues Museum in Berlin and Iraq-born Zaha Hadid, also in the news for designing her first Iraq-based scheme, with her €150million avant-garde MAXXI museum in Rome.
Zaha Hadid Architects’ museum is a manifestation of the beautiful dreams of her consummate drawings and paintings. Described by Observer architecture critic Rowan Moore as “a passagiatta played out on multiple intersecting levels,” he argues the case for the most famous woman architect in history who has never before won, despite being included on the Stirling shortlist several times. Telegraph architecture critic Ellis Woodman compares this “undeniably awe inspiring display of architectural bravura” and rebranding exercise for Rome in the lineage of American architect Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim with the “stunningly courageous transformation of Berlin’s ruined Neues Museum.” Derelict since being hit by allied bombing during World War II, David Chipperfield Architects, with conservation specialists Julian Harrap Architects, have refurbished rather than restored this 19th century building. Original fragments are preserved alongside new interventions in a sophisticated and sometimes theatrical ensemble.
One step down from the ethered heights resides American architect Rick Mather, solid favourite of Museum and University building commissioners throughout Britain. His client for the £61million extension to the Ashmolean, oldest museum in Britain, has no doubt it’ll be recognised very soon as one of the outstanding museum buildings of the 21st century. This intervention, almost invisible from the outside, doubles the museum’s size. Planned around a top-lit atrium, visible connections between gallery spaces serve exhibition designers Metaphor’s brief, Crossing Cultures Crossing Time.
Further down the establishment ladder are the drmm and DSDHA, designers of the two very different school extensions on the list. One has a subdued palette of brick and concrete, the other is a brightly coloured lantern. Their presence has been hailed as a political protest by the RIBA in response to the cuts in the school construction programme. As current RIBA President Ruth Reed and one of the award’s judges says, “it could be some time before we see such exemplar school buildings on the Stirling shortlist again.” Almost unknown previously, Theis and Khan Architects have developed and designed their own office, gallery and residential building – Bateman’s Row House, in Shoreditch, London. The jury remarks upon the cleverness of the project, a “fortress-like … environment for family-living within a tough urban environment… providing a safe haven and respite.”
So who will be the winner? The RIBA will be gunning for the glamorous MAXXI, serious architects for the Neus Museum, but often it’s a solid compromise that wins so my money (although not my heart) goes on drmm’s primary school extension – pretty and politically correct should do it.