At the John Morden Centre, a timber “cloister” subtly contrasts the collection of brick buildings at Morden College in Blackheath, just south of London. The retirement community building designed by London-based Mæ was named the winner of the RIBA Stirling Prize 2023. The annual prize is the most prestigious architecture prize in the U.K. which annually recognizes the design of a new building in the country.
“The John Morden Centre is a place of joy and inspiration. It sensitively and seamlessly integrates medical facilities and social spaces, delivering a bold and hopeful model for the design of health and care centres for the elderly,” said OMA partner Ellen van Loon, who served as the chair of the prize’s jury. “Creating an environment that lifts the spirits and fosters community is evident at every turn and in every detail.”
While the center providing house care, medical facilities, and social spaces for the elderly is new, Morden College was established over 300 years ago. Much of its building stock is recognizable for its stellar masonry work from the desk and hands of architect Sir Christopher Wren and his mason Edward Strong. The John Morden Center’s use of brick references these existing Grade I–listed buildings across the campus.
Cross-laminated timber (CLT) was used to form its structure, conceived as a series of low-lying volumes. The timber nets the buildings together forming “cloisters” that span and connect the brick structures. Mæ chose CLT for its low embodied carbon. Other sustainable methods implemented on the project include the use of a lime-based mortar between the brickwork so the brick can be reused in the future. Chimneys were added on several of the volumes as a means for passive ventilation.
The building considers the needs of its main occupants. Along pathways there is built-in seating, patterns on the floor delineate spaces for those with dementia, concealed handrails are built into the woodwork, and the ground is level.
“The John Morden Centre has been a really fulfilling project to work on,” said Alex Ely, founding director of Mæ. “At a time when adult social care is in a perilous state, this award demonstrates that there is hope for the sector and the project offers up a model for others working within health and care – inspiring them to create environments that positively impact on people’s mental and physical health.”
Beyond residential and medical programming, the complex houses numerous social and recreational spaces, among these an art room, hair and nail salon, a cafe, and a theater for events. A connection to the outdoors is apparent across the site with benches placed alongside grass patches, matured trees, and garden beds.
The John Morden Centre beat out a shortlist of projects to win the RIBA Stirling Prize 2023, a list that included housing projects and university buildings. The prize’s jury was headed by van Loon; other jury members included: Niall McLaughlin, founder and principal at Niall McLaughlin Architects and past RIBA Stirling Prize recipient; Armstrong Yakubu, senior partner at Foster + Partners; Mona Chalabi, journalist and writer; and Marek Suchocki, head of industry associations strategy at Autodesk, a sponsor of the 2023 RIBA Stirling Prize. Rachael Owens of Buckley Gray Yeoman, served as the jury’s Sustainability Expert.