The Stirling Prize is awarded annually to the best new building in the UK, and each year I complained about the unsustainability of the winners. A few years ago, the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) said it was changing its ways, with the chairman of the awards group saying: “Environmental performance is no longer detached from architecture. Many of Stirling’s shortlisted projects had good sustainability indicators. … We want people to demonstrate the strength of their environmental credentials. If they’re not there, we need to be able to not shortlist them for the highest tier of rewards.
This year the new rules came into effect and RIBA President Simon Allford is quoted in the RIBA Journal describing this year’s shortlist:
“All six are…underpinned by their understanding of building’s responsibility to mitigate and adapt to our climate crisis. From reusing and retrofitting existing buildings to consciously specifying low-emitting materials and technologies carbon, to the thoughtful design of hybrid and flexible spaces – these programs consider their environment and give generously to their community.”
The article is titled “Climate responsible design underpins the 2022 Stirling Prize shortlist”, which begs the question: what is climate responsible design?
One of the shortlisted projects, 100 Liverpool Street by Hopkins Architects, is described by RIBA’s Eleanor Young as a “high ambition renovation”. carbon building, a first for the property company and client British Land.” The project page reads: “Its approach to reuse demonstrates clear strategic thinking, keeping what could be salvaged, peeling off what couldn’t and adding what was needed.”
The original building was an interesting pile of post-modern 80s pink granite with giant trading floors for the financial sector, which are no longer in demand. The C20 Society noted that “the complex has been widely celebrated as the nation’s most notable office development built during the financial boom of the 1980s, and has been lauded for its exceptionally high quality, carefully planned public realm and its prestigious collection of works of art designed for this purpose”.
In a previous RIBA Journal article on the building, there was a lot of talk about sustainability, reducing embodied carbon as much as possible through careful design and specification, and offsetting the rest, which they did with the planting of trees in Tibet and Mexico. Sustainability manager Julia Morgan “acknowledges that offsetting is not a panacea, noting that no amount of forest growth could offset carbon emissions at our current rate, but the scale of the investment of British Land is awesome.”
None of this was very convincing when I read the original article, planting trees in Tibet is definitely not a panacea, I rather liked the original pink PoMo building, and the new facade all Glass didn’t particularly seem like a more sustainable approach, but I didn’t think it deserved a post at the time. However, talking about the Stirling Prize is a whole different story; does this really raise the bar on eco-friendly starters, as promised?
Our friends at Architects for Climate Action (ACAN!) aren’t so sure and call on RIBA to stop celebrating architecture that is bad for the planet. They are quite candid about 100 Liverpool Street:
“100 Liverpool St is an exercise in greenwashing. The demolition of the 1980s pink granite office block paved the way for the erection of a fully glazed office block. Its ‘net zero’ claim is based on reusing part of the building’s original concrete and steel, barely a saving for a building that didn’t need to be demolished in the first place. alien, in Tibet and Mexico, is controversial, which reinforces the pollution status quo and wrests land from the control of indigenous groups, its glass facade requires expensive and intensive artificial cooling and heating which it is thoughtless to promote in a crisis of energy poverty and a climate emergency.
Another shortlisted project not previously known to Treehugger is Orchard Gardens, a redevelopment of a large housing project in the Elephant & Castle area, built on the site of the Heygate estate. It was another one of those modernist neo-brutalist projects that everyone loves to hate (like the much lamented Robin Hood Gardens) that they refused to maintain properly, and then we end up with neglectful demolition.
It was a big scandal in 2013 when it was sold at a loss and unfairly criticized. Architect Tim Tinker told the BBC: “The Heygate and its design have been stigmatized and I thought it was time to set the record straight. Its notorious reputation is a farrago of half-truths and of lies put together by people who should have known better.”
I’ve suggested before that no building that rises from such rubble should be considered for a prize, that it’s like encouraging arson, but it’s actually worse than that. A CAN! describes how 1,194 social housing units have been replaced by 2,700 units, of which only 92 are now social housing. They write, “Unnecessary demolitions further fuel climate breakdown. Replacing social housing with high-end homes is an act of social cleansing, exacerbating the growing inequalities facing our societies.”
There are some beautiful projects on the shortlist, including Níall McLaughlin’s Magdelene College Library, a marvel of wood and brick.
But we live in a world where we have to deal with and fix rather than just bring things down, and the story behind 100 Liverpool and Orchard Park cannot be ignored. In the Stirling Prize announcement, Allford said: “As we grapple with the housing, energy and climate crises, these six projects inspire optimism, each offering innovative solutions to the challenges of today and tomorrow. Two of them don’t.