For the second year in a row, British architecture’s biggest and most prestigious prize has gone to the world’s best known woman architect, Zaha Hadid. The £20,000 RIBA Stirling Prize was awarded to Ms Hadid at a ceremony for the Evelyn Grace Academy, an extraordinary new high school in a deprived part of Brixton in south London.
The award will have surprised many – Ms Hadid’s school was up against stiff competition from the favourite to win, Hopkins Architects’ graceful and sleek Velodrome for the London 2012 Olympics. But few will argue with the selection of a school building which seems to speak of a different era in which the state could contemplate creating new schools as a template for a future in which architecture was seen as a pivotal element in the functioning and ambition of an institution.
The new school is powerful, elegant and sculptural and its slanting, complex interlocking forms express a dynamic new start for the old schools to which it is a successor (Evelyn and Grace schools), a hybrid of institutions and spaces as the two schools retain a separate identity within the new building. At the centre of the scheme is the new school’s most enduring image – a 100m racetrack that draws pupils in towards the main entrance in an enjoyably theatrical gesture.
Last year Iraqi-born Hadid, who had long felt under-appreciated by her British peers and the profession (the school and the Olympics Aquatics Centre are her first major buildings on British soil despite an international career stretching back to the 1980s), won the Stirling Prize for her MAXXI Centre, a museum of modern art in Rome.
This year’s award seems more surprising but somehow more wholesome. It is one thing to receive a prize for a lavish, operatic arts building in Rome, another entirely to get it for a state school in Brixton and it is easy to see that the judges might have got swept up in the backstory.
This year’s shortlist was a good one. Ms Hadid faced competition not only from the exquisite velodrome but from David Chipperfield’s exquisite and understated Folkwang Museum in Essen and Bennetts Associates’ Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford upon Avon. There was also a commercial structure – The Angel Building, in London’s Islington which saw the reuse of an existing structure and its transformation into an extremely elegant office block and shows the way to an architectural version of recycling which is sustainable and surely the way developers should be working in the future. Finally there was Derry’s An Gaeláras Irish language cultural centre, the first such institution in Northern Ireland. Designed by O’Donnell+Tuomey, this is a sophisticated structure, intelligently integrated in to its setting but one which, like Ms Hadid’s school, relies for its impact partly on its fascinating backstory.
The prize was awarded at a ceremony in the Magna Centre, a cavernous former steelworks in Rotherham which now houses a science adventure centre. The Magna centre itself was a recipient of the Stirling Prize a decade ago and, in a curious twist of fate, its designers, Wilkinson Eyre, are the only other architects to have won the prize twice in a row – following up their award for the Magna with the Stirling Prize for the Gateshead Millennium (‘Blinking Eye’) Bridge across the Tyne in 2002.
Some may be sorry that the Velodrome lost but it will have its time in the spotlight (along with Ms Hadid’s Aquatics centre) at the London Olympics next year.
For a south London with a severely deprived catchment area and a large percentage of its intake having English as a second language, in a deprived area the prize probably means much more. A number of the students, particularly the girls, have already expressed an interest in becoming architects.