Last year was a tough time to be a student. The conviviality, communality and proximity that are so critical to the university experience were all brutally stripped away by Covid restrictions.
Students at Kingston University, on the south-west edge of London, though, might have fared a little better thanks to the opening of the Townhouse, a civic megastructure that on Thursday won this year’s Stirling prize, British architecture’s most prestigious award.
Its architects are Dublin-based Grafton, led by Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara who, with this triumph, have achieved a kind of hat-trick, having won both the Royal Institute of British Architects Gold Medal and architecture’s biggest prize, the Pritzker, last year. They also curated the Venice Biennale in 2018.
The Townhouse, as its name suggests, was intended as a space in between university and town, between civic and domestic. It does this through an imposing six-storey facade of lofty concrete columns, which gives it a formal grandeur but also a permeability suggesting its openness to the public as well as students and creating a frontage of terraces, balconies and bars.
Housing a library, archive, dance and performance space, study and seminar rooms, it manages to accommodate conflicting demands.
Lord Norman Foster, the jury chair, called it “a theatre for life — a warehouse of ideas”.
“In this highly original work of architecture, quiet reading, loud performance, research and learning, can delightfully coexist,” he said. “That is no mean feat. Education must be our future — and this must be the future of education.”
Farrell and McNamara are globally admired and have remained unstarry, affable and thoughtful.
Their architectural approach is heavily influenced by the Brutalist era of the late 1960s and early 1970s, which was so unfashionable for so long. But they have found in it the qualities of urban dignity, presence and openness and this will surely be a popular victory.
They said they were “absolutely delighted” at their success. “This building is about people, interaction, light, possibilities,” they said. “It is about connecting to the community, the passer-by, an invitation to cross the threshold; a three-dimensional framework with layers of silence and layers of sound. Space, volume and light are the organisers.”
The Townhouse was up against a solid list of contenders, all but one outside the capital. The Tintagel Castle Footbridge in Cornwall (Ney & Partners and William Matthews Associates) commissioned by English Heritage is a subtle engineering beauty but was always, perhaps, an outsider.
Two projects in Cambridge, a mosque (Marks Barfield) and key worker housing in Eddington (Stanton Williams) contrast in their approach. The former contains a rich, complex interior of bent timber creating a domed, Islamic-inflected roof structure, the latter is a minimal reflection on the tradition of the college court.
The blackened, low-slung buildings of Carmody Groarke’s Windermere Jetty Museum are an elegant riff on the local boat yards and industrial traditions. Finally, Groupwork’s 15 Clerkenwell Close is a mixed-use building containing offices and residences with a striking, structural stone facade. It was embroiled in a remarkable row when Islington council threatened it with demolition.
Planners suggested the building failed to “fit in” with its neighbours and Groupwork founder Amin Taha was forced to defend its language through historic precedent.
Arguably the most interesting and certainly the most eccentric of the buildings on the list, this was an experiment in reviving stone as both structure and facing and expressing the material as it emerged from the quarry with all the marks, imperfections and fossils that are usually polished out left in situ.
There are comparison’s between Groupwork’s facade and Grafton’s colonnade and the latter’s extensive use of carbon-intensive concrete (their signature material) might be questioned as climate rises sharply up the agenda. Ironically, the Townhouse most closely resembles the work of US architect Paul Rudolph (1918-97) much of whose best work is now being ruthlessly demolished.
There are omissions after the prize skipped a year in 2020. It is baffling that Peter Barber’s widely admired social housing is absent from the list and 6a’s MK Gallery in Milton Keynes might have merited a mention.