Stirling Prize: 1960s concrete estate up for award

The shortlisted buildings

The renovation of a 1960s concrete housing block in Sheffield, once notorious for crime, drugs and deprivation, is among six architecture projects vying for the Stirling Prize.

Park Hill is joined on the shortlist by a chapel for a college and religious order in Oxfordshire and a holiday home in a 12th Century Warwickshire castle.

The award is the Royal Institute of British Architects' highest accolade.

Riba says the finalists proves "creative vision improves our lives".

The briefest glance at this year's Stirling Prize shortlist tells you modernism is still the name of the architectural awards game. Clean lines, geometric shapes and abstracted details appeal to judges brought up on a strict diet of Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier.

Nothing wrong with that per se: there is beauty in architectural simplicity - as demonstrated by the ancient Greeks, Palladio and more recently by the likes of Oscar Niemeyer and Sir David Chipperfield.

But, as we know, variety is the spice of life. Which makes this list's lack of anything outré a tad dull. Where are the New Romantics, the neo-Goths or assimilators of non-western aesthetics into the contemporary architecture of multi-cultural Britain?

That said, all six buildings are welcome additions to the UK's landscape, a natural canvas that is too often blighted by truly awful buildings that are hopeless in every sense.

We know the winner will come from the modernist school, but not which of the six. I think it should go to the building that most successfully obeys the rule Louis Sullivan - a founding father of modernist architecture - established in his essay The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered (1896), in which he famously wrote: "Form ever follows function."

Housing features prominently on this year's list, with two of the contenders offering a different approach to new-build development.

"The Riba Stirling Prize is awarded to the building that has made the biggest contribution to the evolution of architecture, and nowhere is the need for fresh-thinking needed more than in housing," Riba president Angela Brady said.

"The UK is blighted with unimaginative, poor quality houses that people don't want to live in but have little other choice, so I am delighted to see two amazing and highly original housing projects on this year's shortlist.

"They shine a light on what the future of UK housing can be," she added.

Five of the six architects feature for the first time, beating off competition from previous winners Sir David Chipperfield and Dame Zaha Hadid.

It is also the first time in the prize's 18-year history that as many as half of the shortlisted firms have women at the helm.

The prize is given to Riba-chartered architects and international fellows of the institute for their work on a building in the UK. Buildings by Riba-chartered architects in the EU are also eligible.

The six shortlisted buildings vary in size and purpose, but all will be judged by the same criteria: Their design excellence and their significance to the evolution of architecture and the built environment. They are:

Park Hill Phase 1, Sheffield
Park Hill

Part of one of the UK's most iconic and infamous housing estates and famous for walkways known as "streets in the sky", Park Hill was built in 1961 and was one of the first Brutalist buildings in the UK. Inspired by Le Corbusier's Unite D'habitation, a famous block of flats in Marseille, France, the building divided opinion between some who loved it and many who loathed it. By the 1980s Park Hill had become dilapidated and was no longer a popular place to live. Poor noise insulation, badly lit walkways and plenty of passages and alleys made perfect getaways for muggers.

Park Hill Phase 1 in Sheffield is vying for the prestigious Stirling Prize

Architects Hawkins Brown and Studio Egret West have kept the structure of the building in place but changed key features, such as interior layout, windows and security. The "streets in the sky" remain, but the external brickwork has been replaced with bright coloured aluminium. A new window in each flat that faces the street has been described as an improvement to the design by the original architect. Judges said the reinvented building "stands as a beacon for imaginative regeneration, quality mass housing and the bold reuse of a listed building".

Park Hill, beauty or beast? Listen to Angela Brady, president of Riba, and Sir Simon Jenkins, chairman of the National Trust, debate.

University of Limerick Medical School

Established in 1972 and given formal recognition in 1989, University of Limerick was the first new university to be created since Irish Independence in 1922. The medical school is a collection of buildings, which were required to complement each other forming a public square on the campus located along the River Shannon. Designed by Ireland-based firm Grafton Architects, the project was completed on a "rock bottom budget".

It includes the medical faculty, two accommodation blocks and a bus shelter, designed to represent a gateway to the monolithic medical school, which is a three-storey cliff-like building constructed using local blue limestone. Lots of natural light and ventilation flood the internal space and judges said the project "feels like it punches well above its weight". "It transforms simple teaching and study spaces into rich, theatrical spaces, with a generosity that verges on the heroic."

Newhall Be, Harlow
Newhall Be, Harlow by Alison Brooks Architects

Riba Stirling Prize

  • Awarded by Royal Institute of British Architects
  • Architects must be Riba members to be in the running, and the building anywhere in the EU
  • Working in partnership with Riba, BBC News will host an online vote and a series of features on the shortlisted buildings, in September
  • Past winners include Lord's Media Centre at the eponymous cricket ground, Terminal 4 at Madrid's Barajas Airport and Rotherham's Magma Centre

Located in Harlow, Essex, Newhall Be housing development is a reconfiguration of the traditional terraced house. A mix of apartments, villas, courtyard and terraced houses, architect Alison Brooks' design of 84 dwellings takes inspiration from the traditional Essex barns and the sculptures of Romanian born artist, Brancusi.

Conventional gardens have been replaced by balconies, patios and roof decks, acting as extensions to the living space while capturing sunlight at various times of the day. The angled buildings also feature a high, cathedral-style roof, which can be converted into another bedroom, and have been designed to avoid overlooking by neighbours. Judges said the scheme "raises the bar for suburban developments" adding that if used elsewhere, it could have a "significant impact" on development in the UK. "In the context of much of the UK's new house building it is truly exceptional." Brooks won the Stirling Prize in 2008 for her part in the Accordia development in Cambridge.

Bishop Edward King Chapel, Oxfordshire
Bishop Edward Kind Chapel, Oxfordshire

Serving two groups - Ripon theological college community and a small religious order, the Sisters of Begbroke - the Grade II listed Bishop Edward King Chapel in Cuddleston was praised by judges for being an "exquisite piece of design and craftsmanship". The brief for Niall McLaughlin Architects was to design an uplifting spiritual space of great potency within an extremely small area.

Mr McLaughlin described the starting point of the project as the word, nave, which describes the central space of a church but also shares the same origin as navis, a ship. "From these words, two architectural images emerged. The first is the hollow in the ground as the meeting place of the community, the still centre. The second is the delicate ship-like timber structure that floats above in the tree canopy, the gathering place for light and sound." Above a fine stone or ashlar base, the building has been constructed using mainly cream limestone, which has been hand broken and laid criss-cross with the unfinished, raw ends exposed to produce a rich texture. The delicate structure is made from blonde wood while windows allow light to flood the chapel and its ambulatory with even, natural light.

Giants Causeway Visitor Centre, County Antrim
Giants Causeway Visitor Centre

Described by judges as a "highly imaginative and sculptural piece of land art," visitors to the centre are given a physical and interactive experience, just like the Giants Causeway it overlooks. Dublin-based Heneghan Peng were selected from 800 entries to design the centre, which was to be both sympathetic to its rugged coastal surroundings including a Unesco World Heritage Site and and Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Composed from two folds marked into the ground, rising up to 6m in height, one rises up to accommodate the building while the second folds down to shield a car park from view.

Windows between columns made from locally quarried, dark coloured volcanic rock - the same material as the causeway - allow visitors to be aware of the outside despite the building being partially underground. "This one pulls off that difficult trick of being a destination in its own right without upstaging the principal event - the causeway which is set a kilometre apart and invisible from it," commented judges.

Astley Castle, Warwickshire

Dating back to the 12th Century, Astley Castle became a Grade II listed building in 1951. It was converted into a hotel in 1955 but a fire in 1978 left as a ruin. A full restoration of the building was not possible, so the task for Architects Witherford Watson Man was to install a new house within the stabilised ruins. With the aim of adding to the many historical layers of the building, courts and outdoor rooms are formed by both old and new walls, while contemporary materials have been colour matched to the original palette.

The layout of the house, which is designed to accommodate up to eight people, is inverted with bedrooms and bathrooms on the ground floor and the living quarters on the first floor. With its deep-set windows and multiple vistas, it is a solid and practical building. Judges described the house as "a hybrid, grafted thing, whose spaces are made of elements varying between one and 800 years old, acting together".


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  • rate this

    Comment number 194.

    No building should be considered for any architectural award until it's at least 10 years old, preferably 25 years old. A building can only be considered 'good' if it stands the test of time.
    Weren't the Sheffield flats nominated when they were new, 50 years ago? Who knows what they'll be like in another 50 years? But by 2038 we should have a fair idea whether their recent makeover has worked.

  • rate this

    Comment number 193.

    Park Hill was listed because - so the story goes - the architect's family lobbied English Heritage as the flats were the last remaining example of his work in the UK. Can't imagine why that should be the case...

  • rate this

    Comment number 192.

    Demolise the Sheffield site - it looks like the council have simply boarded up the windows of the old Park Hill site with colourful plywood - thats not architecture, thats a child colouring in a load of squares on a building

  • rate this

    Comment number 191.

    The 'improvements' to Park Hill are ghastly to say the least. They have splashed colour everywhere but the colours chosen do nothing to improve the look. The University of Sheffield splashed coloured panels on one of their buildings. The colours chosen are delightful and complement each other. The polar opposite to Park Hill.

  • rate this

    Comment number 190.

    When an architect is designing these blocks of flats they should be thinking 'would I be happy if my mum was living in there ten years down the line?' rather than I'll colour the walls the same shades as my latest set of trendy specs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 189.

    That chapel is absolutely breathtaking... and I'm an atheist!

  • rate this

    Comment number 188.

    Not too sure about Park Hill Phase 1, although I do understand that it must have been a challenge to regenerate that estate,so well done to them.

    Likewise Limerick Medical School is not to my taste.

    The other 4 I think are all fantastic though. Looking forward learning the winner.

  • rate this

    Comment number 187.

    The Causeway Centre is truly beautiful, working with its environment and not against it. Why would anyone want to visit the other entries?! They are pretty darn ugly...

  • rate this

    Comment number 186.

    I have to admit that I think that that council estate that features on all the TV programmes with the flats that stack backward to create a leaning teir, each property with a little neat outdoor area is the gold standard in apartment design for me. not sure what its called

  • rate this

    Comment number 185.

    Gorgeous- makes you proud doesn't it

  • rate this

    Comment number 184.

    Re N.Ireland; If you visit n take advice where to go you'll not witness the mindless thuggery perpetuated (annually) by a minority of brainless sash wearers who burn other nations flags and religious emblems - as bad as racismm - defended and sanctioned by a section of 'politicians'? We have come a long way and we have some stunning buildings; the MAC, St Annes, Causeway. Hows the head Doddsy?

  • rate this

    Comment number 183.

    Quite a number of comments are blaming the Tory Party for these hateful flats, why when the Labour were in power for 13+ years. We would all like the country cottage with roses round the door, unfortunately with land being at a premium the only way is to build up. With another 100.000+ due in Jan 14 we can only build flats, people will children must not live higher than the 2nd floor.

  • rate this

    Comment number 182.

    Ah: once again the "I" word makes its inevitable appearance. Why is it that journalists like Will Gompertz feel compelled to describe any pig-ugly pile of crap as "Iconic", as if to imply that they can see some inner beauty that is so illusive to plebs like us?

  • rate this

    Comment number 181.

    A monstrosity.

    Sheffield seems the perfect place for it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 180.

    I think I would say that Park Hill is superior to any of the awful, shoddily built, miniscule, poorly designed noddy boxes that endless private bussinesses have stuck onto every town in the country. the coloured panels, however, look tacky. The Essex estate is ingeniously designed but in the end is just another suburban estate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 179.

    I'm surprised they are still sanding.
    I seem to remember a lot of them were built using inferior materials and crumbling concrete.

  • rate this

    Comment number 178.

    The Giant's Causeway is one of the most beautiful areas in the world. Just because a small minority of people riot once a year should not prevent anyone from visiting N. Ireland. Should the August 2012 riots in London mean that London is out of bounds for tourists.

  • rate this

    Comment number 177.

    Yes, parts of Park Hill in Sheffield have now been turned into yuppie flats (as has much of what is left of our industrial buildings), but judging by how few lights in the windows you see at night very few people actually appear be living in them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 176.

    You can't polish a turd, but you can roll one in glitter. Unfortunately it still is a turd inside.

  • rate this

    Comment number 175.

    At about the same time as Park Hill, the Soviet Republic of Brent demolished a lot of nice houses to build the Chalkhill estate-flats with aerial walkways. It rapidly became a crime and drug ridden ghetto. It has now been demolished and good riddence.


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