A South London state-funded school is a far cry from an international exhibition center, but in the last two years the annual Stirling Prize, organized by the RIBA, has recognized Zaha Hadid’s designs for both as exceptional examples of British architecture. This year’s winner, the Evelyn Grace Academy in Brixton was the London-based practice’s second consecutive win after last year’s prize for the enigmatic Maxxi Museum in Rome. Hadid’s design was up against a swathe of accomplished competitors including Hopkins’ London Olympics Velodrome, the Royal Shakespeare and Swan Theatres in Stratford by Bennetts Associates and Chipperfield’s Folkwang Museum in Essen, Germany.
The winning selection signifies an important shift in design for institutional buildings in the UK. The Academy champions a controversial system of non-selective, inner-city schools introduced throughout Britain under the previous government, which aim to bring excellence at every level, including design. Speaking at the event, RIBA President Angela Brady, chair of the judges, said it is “a highly imaginative, exciting Academy that shows the students, staff and local residents that they are valued… what every school should and could be.”
For Hadid the challenge was to wrap four schools in one block, maintaining independence for each while expressing an overall unity. On a tightly carved-out urban site, the glass and steel structure slots and snakes around 151,000 square feet and uses Hadid’s characteristic structural dynamism to impress upon students a sense of ambition, pride and strength. Taking the Academy’s specialist subject, sport, the design makes a theatrical feature out of it, with views on to the grounds and one lasting image of the school has its crisp red running track guiding students to the entrance and sweeping beyond, beneath and around the zig-zag of classrooms, laboratories and offices. The prize also comes at a good time for one of the UK’s leading architects who, much to her disgruntlement, has built only three other buildings on home soil, including the Maggie’s Center in Scotland and the London Olympics Aquatic Center.
The runners-up in the RIBA Stirling Prize 2011:
An Gaelaras, Derry by O’Donnell and Tuomey
The Angel Building, London by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris (AHMM)
Folkwang Museum, Essen, Germany by David Chipperfield Architects
Olympic Velodrome London 2012 by Hopkins Architects, supported by the Olympic Delivery Authority
Royal Shakespeare and Swan Theatres, Stratford by Bennetts Associates