This year’s RIBA Stirling Prize, considered as the most prestigious architecture award in the United Kingdom, has been bestowed to Kingston University London’s Town House, a multi-use higher education building that “expertly captures the spirit of learning and the value of community cohesion,” per a formal announcement released late today by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). Spanning nearly 97,000-square-feet, the concrete-framed structure includes an amphitheater, dance studio, exhibition galleries, study nooks, library, cafe, and a plethora of casual gathering spaces, indoors and out, made all the more beguiling by an absence of barriers, an abundance of light, and a freewheeling sense of sociability and openness that may come across as a bit radical during these cloistered away times.
With its soaring colonnaded facade commanding a striking presence on Penrhyn Road on the campus of Kingston University in Kingston Upon Thames, southwest London, Town House is the work of the 2020 RIBA Royal Gold Medal-winning firm Grafton Architects.
As the Dublin-based Grafton Architects said in a statement reacting to the win:
“We imagined a place where students would feel at home. This building is about people, interaction, light, possibilities. 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 building edges are not boundaries but active gathering spaces, terraces, galleries. Being outside under the big sky is always just a few steps away. Kingston University gave us this educational vision which we translated into a spatial open matrix. We are absolutely delighted the Kingston Town House has won the prestigious Stirling Prize.”
In addition to the firm’s Royal Gold Medal win in 2020, Grafton Architects co-founders Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara were also named as that year’s Pritzker Prize laureates. While these esteemed architectural award programs—both international prizes—were held and presented (virtually) to Grafton Architects last year despite the pandemic, the RIBA Stirling Prize, which awards a completed project and not a firm or person, was canceled outright due to the COVID-19 crisis. Because it is project-based, the prize judging process required jurors to travel across the U.K. and tour each potential building in person, which of course wasn’t feasible at the time.
The RIBA Stirling Prize is a relatively new architecture award having been first established in 1996. Recent pre-pandemic wins include Bloomberg by Foster + Partners and Goldsmith Street by Mikhail Riches with Cathy Hawley in 2018 and 2019, respectively. This newest addition to Grafton Architects’ already considerable trophy chest actually comes as a bit of a surprise as Cambridge Central Mosque by Marks Barfield Architects, not Town House, was favored by bookies to take home the 25th Stirling Prize.
Completed in 2020, Town House was the winning design in a RIBA design competition held in 2013 and is the first built project in the U.K. designed by Grafton. Willmot Dixon Construction served as the project contractor. (The full project team can be viewed here.) In addition to its thermally-activated concrete frame that reduces energy usage, the six-story structure, described by RIBA as a “highly-adaptable building will stand the test of time,” features a slew of other active and passive sustainable design strategies/features including solar shading provided by the colonnade, a photovoltaic solar array, a pair of roof gardens, an eco-friendly rainwater management system, and landscaping courtesy Dermot Foley Landscape Architects that is “designed to support increased biodiversity. ”
Not quite a proper student center and not quite an arts hub, the multitasking Town House is a space to see and be seen, a venue for vibes, a place of belonging.
“We had an incredibly ambitious brief — to create a space for students that would allow them to benefit from knowing each other, a library to inspire learning, dance studios and a softening of the threshold between gown and town,” said Steven Spier, Vice-Chancellor of Kingston University, of the initial competition. “Grafton Architects delivered just such an innovative programme. The result is a breathtaking new building for Kingston University.”
“The Stirling Prize confirms Town House as a world-class building and, therefore, a fitting foil to the aspirations of our students, many of whom are the first in their families to go to university,” Spier added. “It is invigorating to witness the creativity, collaboration and shared learning this open, inviting space fosters.”
In addition to Cambridge Central Mosque, joining the triumphant Town House on the shortlist of six projects under consideration for the 2021 RIBA Stirling Prize were: 15 Clerkenwell Close, London (GROUPWORK); Key Worker Housing – Eddington, Cambridge (Stanton Williams); Tintagel Castle Footbridge for English Heritage, Cornwall (Ney & Partners and William Matthews Associates), and Windermere Jetty Museum, Cumbria (Carmody Groarke).
“Kingston University Town House is a theatre for life — a warehouse of ideas. It seamlessly brings together student and town communities, creating a progressive new model for higher education, well deserving of international acclaim and attention,” said chair Lord Norman Foster on behalf of the 2021 RIBA Stirling Prize jury. “In this highly original work of architecture, quiet reading, loud performance, research and learning, can delightfully co-exist. That is no mean feat. Education must be our future – and this must be the future of education.”
Joining Foster on the 2021 jury was RIBA president Simon Allford, 2019 Stirling Prize-winning architect Annalie Riches, and artist Dame Phyllida Barlow. Architect Mina Hasman served as jury advisor.