No more noddy boxes! Design judges' dismay at British buildings

Excellence is now the exception, say experts on jury panel for top architectural award

Andrew Liddle@ABTLiddle
Sunday 14 October 2012 01:01

British architecture is in a "dreadful" state, with dispiriting and badly designed developments blighting the country, according to two judges of the UK's leading architectural award.

Sir Mark Jones and Naomi Cleaver spoke out before tonight's announcement of the winner of the 2012 RIBA Stirling Prize, which is awarded to the best new building in Britain.

This year's shortlist includes the Olympic Stadium and the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield, but the judges suggested that excellence was now an exception rather than the rule in UK architecture. Speaking to The Independent, Sir Mark, master of Saint Cross College Oxford, said: "Anyone interested in design could not be happy with the overall standard of buildings built in this country.

"There is a lack of feeling and lack of care for quality of design in retail parks and many dispiriting residential and office developments." In particular, he said he was concerned that architectural education is becoming "over theorised" and lacking in practical experience.

The quality of architecture in Britain is falling behind that of continental rivals, particularly Scandinavia and the Netherlands, he said. He did add, though, that positive trends are developing in British architecture, such as a growing historical precedence in design.

His fears were echoed by Ms Cleaver, a design consultant, who blamed the "dreadful" state of UK architecture on the failure of councils to embrace innovative designs.

The consultant, who has appeared on Channel 4's Grand Designs: Trade Secrets, said: "Planning departments are rather unfocused and arbitrary in terms of their decision making. There are issues with planning – [and we are] not going the right way about solving those issues." She said that in the south-west, where she has a studio, local authorities still show a preference for "noddy boxes" – houses of low build-quality and little design merit.

"Mass house building is just as much a synthesis of architecture as any other building, and yet in my area I have to say I am shocked to see developers are still building 'noddy boxes', and that's after 99 episodes of Grand Designs!"

Neither Sir Mark nor Ms Cleaver, who sat on the judging panel chaired by Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, the architect behind Waterloo International railway station, would be drawn on their picks for this year's prize. But Sir Mark has previously hinted that two of the six shortlisted buildings have little chance of victory. Architecture commentators have suggested that the Olympic Stadium in Stratford – designed by Populous – is probably one of these.

Rory Alcayto of The Architects' Journal said of the stadium: "It had a fine time in the spotlight this summer, and rightly so, but no clear-headed judge would rate it Britain's best."

In contrast, the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield, designed by David Chipperfield Architects, is considered a front-runner. The Hepworth, commissioned by Wakefield City Council, is made out of dusky mauve concrete forms in a box-like composition. Another favourite is the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, designed by O'Donnell + Tuomey. Ms Cleaver described the shortlisted buildings as "quite refined, rather than ostentatious".

If the Olympic Stadium does miss out, it will be not be the first time a London 2012 venue has been overlooked. Last year Zaha Hadid's Z-shaped Academy School in Brixton was selected over Michael Hopkins' Olympic Velodrome, despite the cycling arena winning a popular vote.

Another prominent Olympic venue, the Aquatics Centre designed by Hadid, a previous winner, was not a contender this year, though it may be entered another year once relics from the Games, such as unsightly seating, have been removed.

This year's nominees are the Hepworth, Wakefield; the Lyric Theatre, Belfast; Maggie's Centre, Glasgow; New Court, London; the Olympics Stadium, London; and the Sainsbury Laboratory, Cambridge. The prize is named after the architect James Stirling, who died in 1992; previous winners include the Gherkin and the Scottish Parliament building. The winner will be announced at a dinner tonight.

On the other hand... Stirling Prize nominees

The Hepworth, Wakefield

Approached across an elegant bridge, this Gallery is made up of apparently random boxes, lending the building both a dramatic and welcoming aspect. Designed by David Chipperfield Architects.

Maggie's Centre, Glasgow

The cancer care centre offers a welcoming atmosphere, with glazed internal walls, integrated rectangular spaces and rooms decorated by local artisans. Designed by OMA.

Olympic Stadium, London

The centre-piece of London 2012, the 80,000-capacity stadium features exposed structures and unrivalled sightlines to the playing field. Designed by Populous.

Sainsbury Laboratory, Cambridge

With its grand façade, sweeping promenade and glazed public café, the building, set in a botanical garden, offers a prime research environment. Designed by Stanton Williams.

Lyric Theatre, Belfast

Brick terraces, set against a river frontage, flow into a spacious building to provide Northern Ireland's only repertory theatre. Designed by O'Donnell + Tuomey.

New Court, London

The fourth home of the Rothschild Bank since 1809, New Court is well integrated with its neighbours, such as Sir Christopher Wren's Church of St Steven of Walbrook. Designed by OMA with Allies & Morrison.

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