Critical Round-Up: The 2014 RIBA Stirling Prize Shortlist

The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) has now announced the six projects that form this year's Stirling Prize Shortlist, the award that is the ultimate prize for any British building. As the RIBA's most publicly prominent award, the Stirling Prize is often a prime demonstration of the tension between architecture that is widely appreciated by the general populace, and that which is lauded by architectural critics and practitioners.

This year is no exception, with perhaps the country's highest-profile project in years - the Shard - just part of the controversy. What did the critics make of the RIBA's selection? Find out after the break.

Wainwright believes that the Manchester School of Art is "one of the most important on the list". Image © Hufton + Crow

Oliver Wainwright, The Guardian

Wainwright provides perhaps the best quick-fire analysis of each shortlisted project, highlighting for example how the Shard "is a beacon of confidence to some; to others, it is a mostly-empty monument to Mammon and a totem of Qatari investment," adding himself that "a thing of elegance and beauty on the skyline, the building stutters and stumbles where it hits the ground." This criticism however is contrasted by the inclusion of the bookmaker's odds for each building: at 2:1, the Shard is a comfortable favourite.

At the other end of the scale, Wainwright describes the 9:1 Manchester School of Art as "one of the most important on the list" thanks to how it "provides an object lesson in how [unloved 1960s buildings] can be revived with thoughtful intervention."

Edwin Heathcote cheers the return to the shortlist of blockbuster projects such as Zaha Hadid's Aquatics Centre. Image © Hufton + Crow

Edwin Heathcote, Financial Times

Heathcote is impressed with the shortlist as a whole, arguing that it is "more impressive than it has been for years... with the most recognisable buildings in the prize’s 19-year history." He adds that after last year's "small, careful and exquisite" winner, Witherford Watson Mann's Astley Castle, "this year appears to see a return to the blockbusters."

He also sees the high profile shortlist as a demonstration "that despite spending cuts, Britain’s city centres continue to undergo radical transformations," and "that Britain’s heterogeneous architectural culture, spanning the skyscraper and stadium megastructure to the sophisticated ad hoc local theatre, is alive and kicking."

Rykwert considers Mecanoo's Library of Birmingham "a bold assertion of surface by pattern". Image © Christian Richters

Joseph Rykwert

Writing as part of the Architects' Journal's stable of critics, Rykwert asks "How will the judges rate them? I certainly hope that courage will be one of the criteria," adding "But courage comes in different forms – there is the brute kind of seeing how high you can go, and the more subtle variety, shown by O’Donnell + Tuomey, who devised a brilliant envelope by dovetailing discordant functions on an awkward site; or yet Mecanoo’s bold assertion of surface by pattern."

Asked which is his favourite of the list, Rykwert declines to choose, saying: "For once, I can sympathize with the judges’ difficulties."

Among O'Donnell + Tuomey's fan are Jay Merrick and Ellis Woodman. Image © Dennis Gilbert

Jay Merrick, The Independent

Another Contributor to the AJ's collection, the Independent's resident critic characterises the shortlist as "three Goliaths [Hadid, Piano and Mecanoo], three Davids [Haworth Tompkins, Feilden Clegg Bradley and O'Donnell + Tuomey]," but qualifies this statement by saying "I suspect the ‘safety’ and ‘obviousness’ of the [first three] selections are false."

His favourite is actually one of his 'Davids', O'Donnell + Tuomey's Saw Swee Hock Student Centre: "The geometric and material response to a dreadfully tight lacuna site is not just bold, it absolutely works, both as a Soane-meets-Expressionist urban sculpture, and programmatically."

Many critics seem to be against the inclusion of The Shard in the list, in particular Ellis Woodman and Catherine Slessor. Image © Michel Denance

Ellis Woodman, The Architects' Journal

Taking a strong stance as one of the critics against the public's favourite, Woodman describes the Shard by saying: "Constructed in a part of London that presents no obvious need for a structure of such exceptional height the Shard speaks to many of us only of the city’s failure to direct corporate interests towards a considered urban outcome."

Of the projects he does like, he says that "FCB Studios and Haworth Tompkins’ entries are altogether stronger but – if past recipients are anything to go by – too unassuming to win." For Woodman, "ultimately there is the only one horse in this race. O’Donnell + Tuomey has been shortlisted four times previously but the Saw Swee Hock Student Centre is its strongest entry to date."

Haworth Tompkins can take solace in the fact that according to Slessor, they deserve to win - although whether they will is a different matter. Image © Philip Vile

Catherine Slessor, The Architectural Review

The final contributor to the AJ's collection of critics, Slessor says that after last years rather quiet shortlist this year's selection is "back to the waving and smiling business with an array of pushy personalities preening fit to bust."

Of all the critics, Slessor is perhaps the most vehemently against the Shard, saying "as an utterly remorseless extrusion of capital it has very little to do with architecture, but as an urban signifier intruding balefully on every horizon like the Eye of Sauron it has no equal." Her sense of disappointment even carries through to her selection of the winner: "Who will win – Zaha Hadid, despite the déjà vu. Who should win – Haworth Tompkins."

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Cite: Rory Stott. "Critical Round-Up: The 2014 RIBA Stirling Prize Shortlist" 20 Jul 2014. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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