Beautiful Design Delivered Efficiently
KINGSTON UNIVERSITY LONDON – Town House was last week announced as the winner of the 25th Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) Stirling Prize.
Praised by the jury as a highly original work of architecture the Town House has been rightly celebrated for its quality of design with little, if any, reference to its use of modern methods of construction (MMC). As Rowan Moore (architectural critic at the Observer) observed in reference to Mapleton Crescent the building has architectural qualities that are nothing in particular to do with the innovation in its construction.
Whilst it may appear somewhat odd for us, as MMC advisors, to be positive about the lack of recognition for the scheme’s construction methodology, in Moore’s statement lies a key point: MMC and architectural aesthetic are not mutually exclusive.
In an article entitled ‘the rise and rise of ugly buildings’, Moore observed that
The annual quest for the architectural ‘Best in Show’ testifies to this point. At Akerlof, we have mapped the Stirling Prize nominees over the past 10 years and our graphic below illustrates that our country’s finest has been delivered through the use of both traditional and modern methods of construction, including component-led and manufactured solutions.
Burntwood School, winner in 2015, was applauded by the judges for the technically sophisticated use of prefabricated modular structures, whilst the 2019 nominee, London Bridge Station was constructed using precast concrete platform sections as well as 1,100 aluminium roof cassettes preassembled offsite. Both examples applied MMC not as statement of design but as an enabler: the best available means to achieve the design ambition.
These are not isolated examples and yet despite data to the contrary, MMC is often accompanied by an idiosyncratic agenda about aesthetic. The challenge against modern approaches is certainly not new, nor exclusive to the build methodology. In 1959, students at the Royal College of Act founded the Anti-Ugly Action group to protest at what they saw as the prevailing mediocrity in new architecture. Several years later, the architectural critic Ian Nairn was vociferous in his view:
The truth is that ugly buildings have always been with us. In 1888, writing for Oscar Wilde’s magazine, The Woman’s World, the novelist Ouida wrote:
This theme continues today and therefore whilst MMC may not be the antithesis to beauty, inevitably a review of the Carbuncle Cup shortlisting history (the prize given to the ‘ugliest building in the UK completed in the past 12 months of each year’) would similarly include an array of prefabricated components. Correlation does not however mean causation.
Innovations over recent years have yielded a range of new materials and methods that can unlock complex geometries, technical feats and an understanding of our buildings that complements design excellence. The tools to deliver better, beautiful buildings now exist; the resolve to use them with context and consideration does not always rise to the same level of sophistication. The Townhouse however is an example where the bar has been raised.
Richard Rogers once argued that James Stirling was the first British architect to develop a truly modern style. It therefore seems fitting that the 2021 award winner is innovative in its construction but more importantly an original work of architecture….. that creates a progressive new model for higher education.