October 15, 2012 12:07 am

Cambridge laboratory wins Stirling prize

The Sainsbury Laboratory, a small research facility set in the Botanic Garden of the University of Cambridge, is the surprise winner of this year’s Riba Stirling Prize, the UK’s premier architectural award, beating off shortlist entries that included London’s Olympic stadium.

The laboratory overlooks the woods where Charles Darwin once walked while discussing his proposed theory of evolution with John Stevens Henslow, his tutor and mentor, in the landscaped gardens that today will provide raw materials for contemporary scientists’ experiments.

The laboratory, at £69m, is an expensive building and a privileged piece of architecture, but it is also an extremely elegant design. Its stone-colonnaded front and large, light windows make it appear a very open and public building, unusual in a field where security is tight, safety rigorous and protest often vehement.

The architects are Stanton Williams, the London-based practice, who, although this was their first appearance in the Stirling Prize shortlist, have been building subtle, thoughtful and sophisticated structures for 25 years. The £20,000 award appears a victory for a particular kind of calm, considered and unfussy architecture which Stanton Williams have made their own.

Arguably their building for Central St Martin’s art school, part of the University of the Arts London campus at King’s Cross, is at least as impressive an achievement, as well as being one of London’s finest new buildings. It was a complex undertaking in which the architects integrated the institution into the fabric of a Victorian granary building alongside former railway sidings.

With the laboratory, Stanton Williams saw off an impressive shortlist which included the striking headquarters for Rothschild Bank in the City of London by architect practice OMA, alongside the same architects’ Maggie’s Cancer Caring centre in Gartnavel, Glasgow, the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, by O’Donnell + Tuomey, and the Hepworth museum, Wakefield, by Sir David Chipperfield. Perhaps most surprisingly of all, the list included the main Olympic stadium, by Populous, considered the favourite in the warm afterglow of the London 2012 games.

Laboratory buildings were for a long time coldly utilitarian and meanly functional. The Sainsbury building is part of a trend to make them more open and to encourage the social mixing that goes on within so that researchers and scientists are encouraged into the serendipitous encounters seen as so important for generating breakthrough moments and radical ideas.

To do this, the architects have made the social and communal spaces generous and light, spaces more often associated with an art museum lobby or a top-end corporate campus.

The award is a move away from the domination of the super-starchitects whose work has dominated the prize in recent years. The past three winners have been Zaha Hadid, twice, and Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners.

It is, perhaps, a recognition that finally the artificial boundaries between cultural and research institutions are being reassessed. Both are now treated with the seriousness and dignity of institutional importance; both, in effect, as cultural buildings.

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