Another year, another RIBA Stirling Prize winner that seemingly nobody expected. In spite of being the unanimous favorite of the RIBA's Stirling Prize jury, Allford Hall Monaghan Morris (AHMM)'s Burntwood School won out over the BBC people's choice, MUMA's Whitworth Gallery and ArchDaily readers' own favorite, Heneghan Peng Architects' Greenwich University (although AHMM came in second place with 21% of the vote), as well as Reiach and Hall's Maggie's Lanarkshire, Níall McLaughlin's Darbishire Place, and RSH+P's NEO Bankside.
But despite the apparent surprise, was AHMM's Burntwood School a suitable winner of British architecture's highest award? Read on to find out what the critics thought.
"A 1950s timewarp in the best possible sense"
Oliver Wainwright, The Guardian
"With light-flooded classrooms set in a park-like campus, it harks back to the days when schools were full of fresh air and optimism, their buildings invested with care, quality and the power to uplift."
For Wainwright, this return to old-school principles is clearly a positive aspect, as he argues that "the whole place has the sense of a university campus, and the grown-up feeling has clearly rubbed off on the pupils." However, it seems the building's brief is just as important as its design. In a prize that was already highly politicized by protests against Roger Stirk Harbour + Partners' NEO Bankside, Wainwright echoed the comments made by RIBA President Jane Duncan and AHMM partner Paul Monaghan to make a point about the current UK government's policies:
"In a year when picking a winner was a tougher choice than usual, the decision sends out a powerful message about the importance of investing in the design of schools, an issue the Conservative government has pushed aside."
"Could there be a more deserving winner? I don’t think so."
Rory Olcayto, Architects' Journal
If Wainwright is complimentary about AHMM's design, Editor-In Chief of The Architects' Journal Olcayto is positively gushing:
"The reuse of existing buildings, the clever artwork and signage strategy, the sculptural quality of the facades, the smart prefabrication approach, the low-energy design, the integration with landscape, the close collaboration with the headteacher: it’s no cliché to say Burntwood is a genuine tour de force."
Like Wainwright, he also spots the connection between AHMM's design and certain mid-century traditions, noting "the comfortable homage Burntwood pays to both Breuer (in the facades) and Mies (in the planning)." Once again though, his conclusion is a political one:
"Burntwood has also been referred to – rather wistfully – as the last BSF project, and in some ways its victory is bittersweet. It is unlikely we will see state-school design of this quality unless we see a change in approach to the Priority School Building Programme. Burntwood cost a third more than the PSP budget of £1,400/m². But then who could possibly argue that it is not worth every penny?"
"If the shortlist this year showed anything it was a renewed interest in the value of a public architecture"
Edwin Heathcote, Financial Times
Falling in line with other critics, the Financial Times' Edwin Heathcote also notes the political implications of the school's win. Comparing the selection of Burntwood School to the 2011 Stirling Prize winner, Zaha Hadid Architects' Evelyn Grace Academy, he says:
"Both wins could be interpreted as rebukes to the Conservatives’ abandoning of Labour’s Building Schools for the Future. That programme aimed to substantially rebuild all the nation’s schools but was dropped by Michael Gove in 2010, then education secretary. He suggested that buildings make no difference to learning."
But for Heathcote, the tragedy of this Stirling Prize is not only in the issues surrounding the winner. Noting that the entire shortlist (with the exception of NEO Bankside) demonstrated "a renewed interest in the value of a public architecture, with each entry highlighting a particular issue for society and the public realm," Heathcote states:
"This was a good shortlist and, surely, an uncontroversial winner, but the best buildings here still represent only pinpoints of hope in areas that present contemporary British construction with real challenges, from housing to the public realm."
"I struggle to see how Burntwood School sufficiently elevates itself from the mundane and monotonous to merit its prize"
Ike Ijeh, Building Design
As if in response to Heathcote's characterization of the selection as "uncontroversial," Building Design's Ike Ijeh pens a scathing assessment of the result as "underwhelming." Like others, he sees a clear connection to the architecture of the previous century - but Ijeh offers an alternative interpretation of this historic connection:
"Burntwood’s concrete facades may conceal all manner of technical wizardry but in their relentless repetition, heavy articulation and defensive form, they have all the charm and intimacy of a fortified military outpost and even worse, one that looks as if it could have been built fifty years ago."
However, Ijeh's central complaint is not just a simple aesthetic judgement. Instead he writes at length about what he sees as the building's lack of contextual care:
"What is even more troubling are the unnerving similarities between Burntwood’s elevational characteristics and those of several other schools within the AHMM/Laing O’Rourke/Lend Lease arsenal. Save for the odd polychromatic or fenestrational flourish, Burntwood School is clearly constructed from a similar kit of parts to that at Dagenham Park in east London or Holy Trinity in Barnsley. What message is the RIBA Stirling prize sending out about the overriding importance of context and character in animating and personalising our urban townscapes if they have awarded the prize for Britain’s best building to an architectural solution that is clearly part of an androgynous, identikit roll-out designed to be airlifted onto a school campus near you at any time and any place?"
Acknowledging the political implications noted by other architects, Ijeh is again less generous, stating that "the politicisation of architecture, even when it's as thinly veiled as this, is controversial territory." But he does offer one assessment of the politics of the Stirling Prize that apparently all critics would agree on:
"Political proselytising does have its benefits though. At least it stopped Neo Bankside from winning."