ONE mesmerizing wooden mosque in Cambridge will go head to head with a Cornish walkway and a cluster of black ships in the Lake District in this year’s battle for Britain’s best new building. Participating in them during the Riba Stirling Prize in 2021 is a new study center for Kingston University, a central Cambridge housing complex and a controversial stone apartment block that was nearly demolished by the local council.
The mosque is the list’s photogenic anesthetic, and the most prone to snatch gong. Designed by Highlights Barfield, architects of the London Eye Ferris wheel, it uses high-tech rigor for the creation of a seductive worship. A lattice of tall wooden-like pillars branches outward, weaving into a filigree structural canopy that waves over the prayer hall, echoing the shape of Gothic stone vaults and filtering daylight from circular openings above. With Cambridge Gault clay masonry, patterned with decorative Arabic Kufic inscriptionsand ablution facilities worthy of a luxury spa, the £ 23 million building is a compelling fusion of local and Islamic traditions, creating a powerful prototype for what a modern British mosque can be.
An equally startling reinvention of a well-known type comes in the form of Tintagel Castle walkway. The Gossamer Bridge stretches across a dramatic gorge that separates the Cornish mainland from the site of the Arthurian legend, glistening like a misty spider web spun across the gorge. £ 5 million The structure looks impossibly slender and decreases to nothing in the middle, where the two cantilevered halves meet with a narrow hole. Designed by Belgian bridge specialists Ney & Partners with William Matthews (who led the design by Shard skyscraper for Renzo Piano), it has an exceptionally handmade, tactile quality to a piece of infrastructure. The handrails are made of raw oak, while the deck is surface-coated with local slate tiles, packed together on their edges without mortar, giving the comfortable feeling of walking across a box of After Eight mints, over the broken waves.
A similar blend of raw and refined is found on Windermere Jetty Museum in the Lake District. Designed by Carmody Groarke as a run-down cluster of black metal sheds, £ 20m. The complex is a refreshing departure from the national park’s usual insistence on thirsty walls and slate roofs. Inspired by boathouses and nearby farmsteads, the shed’s black-oxidized copper walls glisten with a faint value-pig patina, while chunks are cut out of their sides, leaving rooftops floating with surrealistically deep overhangs. Lined with warm Douglas fir, reflecting the sleek yachts on display, the buildings are carefully put together to hit the view of the lake so water can jump inside the building at some points – bringing curious swans and otters with it.
The length of time that universities will now attract applicants to an increasingly competitive market is evident in Kingston’s £ 50 million townhouse, a palatial new student center in London. Designed by Irish Pritzker Prize Winners Graftonthe building combines a library and dance studios into a dynamic multi-storey cathedral with clashes and connections. Quiet study areas enjoy stunning views of the central performance room, while a wide staircase winds through the building and leads to a rooftop terrace with panoramic views across to Hampton Court Palace and the River Thames. A series of connected balconies cascades around the concrete-framed façade, adding the building feel like an open “learning landscape,” designed to encourage casual encounters with fellow students — which sounds like a welcome perspective after months of online learning.
After a bold city council scheme in Norwich won the last prize in 2019, this year sees a rather boring housing project from Cambridge University funded the shortlist. Part of the new Eddington suburb, central staff apartments by Stanton Williams is inspired by the shape of the city’s sacred university dishes. The Buff brick blocks form a series of loose, interconnected courtyards, tied together with a varied landscaping designed by J&L Gibbons, which helps to soften the sharp architecture.
It is well made with nice bike sheds and innovative underground trash can, but there is something confusing about the overall effect. It is a relentless beige, lifeless place – perhaps in bondage to the legacy of Accordia, 2008 Stirling award-winning housing development on the other side of town, which has threatened many homes over the past decade. One of Peter Barber’s quirky social housing projects would have made a more interesting entry on the shortlist (his projects have been limited to the separate Neave Brown housing price instead, where they include two of the four candidates).
Finally, to spice things up, comes a wildly original building that Islington Council did its best to get bulldozed. At a distance, 15 Clerkenwell Close looks like something Fred Flintstone could have traveled after seeing Mies van der Rohe’s work. Its facade is a square lattice of columns and beams, but the pieces are monolithic chunks of limestone, valued fresh from the quarry, their faces differently sawn smooth, cleaved or drilled, and still showing their masonry marks. These days, stone is mostly reduced to a thin decorative cladding, but here it does the job of keeping the building up – which, says its architect and developer Amin Taha, is cheaper, faster and contains much less CO2 than a similar structure in steel or concrete.
It is a wonderfully poetic sight, a modern ruin of vines that now winds its way up the rugged stone frame. A fallen pillar with a half-finished Ionic capital carved into its rough face, leaning against the entrance, the spiral cut echoing the shape of an ammonite protruding from a plate above — an allusion, like bronze skull shells decorating the gates, to a nunnery , which once stood nearby. From the meeting room in glass box resting on an I-beam above Taha’s basement office, to the intricate foldable, sliding cabinet in the apartments above, to a smart glass-shielded lift shaft that eliminates the need for extensive mechanical ventilation, an obsessive mindset has gone into every detail .
None of this was enough for the council, which declared that the building of 5 million. Pound was “rough, ugly and detrimental to the conservation area”, and served a demolition, who claimed it was in violation of its building permit. After a lengthy legal dispute (which delayed its Stirling shortlisting since 2018), a planning inspector found in favor of Taha.
It would be sweet revenge for this neo-Neolithic masterpiece to win the award, and its level of craftsmanship and innovation is certainly worthy. But for all its benefits, it’s hard to see judges choosing a bespoke private fantasy with eight luxury apartments over a project that makes a major public contribution. My money is on the mosque, a modest thing from the outside, which contains one of the most exciting interior spaces built in this century, a King’s College Chapel Loft to our new wooden age.