Last year was a tough time being a student. The coziness, community and closeness that are so crucial to the university experience were all brutally removed by Covid restrictions.
However, students at Kingston University, on the south-west edge of London, could have done a little better thanks to the opening of Townhouse, a bourgeois mega-structure that on Thursday won this year’s Stirling Award, British architecture’s most prestigious award.
The architects are Dublin-based Grafton, led by Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, who with this triumph have achieved a kind of hat trick after winning both the Royal Institute of British Architects Gold Medal and architecture’s biggest prize, Pritzker, last year. They also curated the Venice Biennale in 2018.
The townhouse, as the name suggests, was intended as a space between university and town, between bourgeois and domestic. It does so through an impressive six-story facade of tall concrete columns, giving it a formal grandeur but also a permeability that suggests its openness to the public as well as to students and creates a facade of terraces, balconies and bars.
With library, archive, dance and performance rooms, study and seminar rooms, it can meet conflicting demands.
Lord Norman Foster, the jury chair, called it “a theater for life – a storehouse of ideas”.
“In this very original architectural work, quiet reading, high performance, research and learning can coexist nicely,” he said. »It is not an evil enterprise. Education must be our future – and it must be the future of education. ”
Farrell and McNamara are globally admired and have remained star-studded, lovable and thought-provoking.
Their architectural approach is strongly influenced by the brutalist era of the late 1960s and early 1970s, which was so outdated for so long. But they have found the qualities of urban dignity, presence and openness in it and this will definitely be a popular victory.
They said they were “absolutely delighted” with their success. “This building is about people, interaction, light, opportunities,” they said. “It is about connecting to the community, the passer-by, an invitation to cross the threshold; a three-dimensional frame with layers of silence and layers of sound. Space, volume and light are the organizers. ”
The town hall was up against a solid list of candidates, all but one outside the capital. Tintagel Castle Footbridge in Cornwall (Ney & Partners and William Matthews Associates) commissioned by English Heritage is a subtle technical beauty, but was perhaps always an outsider.
Two projects in Cambridge, a mosque (Marks Barfield) and key staff housing in Eddington (Stanton Williams) contrast in their approach. The former contains a rich, complex interior of bent wood that creates a vaulted, Islamic bent roof structure, the latter is a minimal reflection on the tradition of the college court.
The black, low-rise buildings in Carmody Groarke’s Windermere Jetty Museum are an elegant reef of local boatyards and industrial traditions. Finally, Groupwork’s 15 Clerkenwell Close is a mixed building containing offices and residences with a striking structural stone façade. It was involved in a remarkable series when the Islington Council threatened it with demolition.
Planners suggested that the building could not “fit in” with its neighbors, and Groupwork founder Amin Taha was forced to defend his language through historical precedent.
Arguably the most interesting and certainly the most eccentric of the buildings on the list, this was an experiment in reviving stones as both structure and opposing and expressing the material as it emerged from the quarry with all the marks, imperfections and fossils that normally is polished out to the left in situ.
There are comparisons between Groupwork’s façade and Grafton’s colonnade, and the latter’s extensive use of carbon – intensive concrete (their signature material) may be called into question as the climate rises sharply on the agenda. Ironically, the townhouse most closely resembles the work of the American architect Paul Rudolph (1918-97), where many of its best works are now being ruthlessly demolished.
There are gaps after the price jumped a year in 2020. It is astonishing that Peter Barber’s much-admired social housing is absent from the list, and 6a’s MK Gallery in Milton Keynes could have deserved a mention.