2021 Stirling Prize winner: Town House and Grafton Architects triumph

2021 Stirling Prize winner: Town House and Grafton Architects triumph

Grafton Architects and its Town House for Kingston University London are the winners of the 2021 RIBA Stirling Prize

Grafton Architects’ Town House at Kingston University London has been crowned the winner of the 2021 Stirling Prize. The coveted accolade, which was announced this evening at a dedicated event inside the Basil Spence-designed Coventry Cathedral, marks the 25th RIBA Stirling Prize cycle, and presents the Irish studio’s Shelley McNamara and Yvonne Farrell with one of the most highly respected architecture awards.

The lush ceremony was part of Coventry’s UK City of Culture 2021 celebrations. The winners fought off stiff competition from a number of worthy structures, as seen in the 2021 RIBA Stirling Prize shortlist. The shortlist also included 15 Clerkenwell Close, London, by Groupwork + Amin Taha Architects; Cambridge Central Mosque by Marks Barfield Architects; Key Worker Housing, Eddington, Cambridge, by Stanton Williams; Tintagel Castle Footbridge by Ney & Partners; and William Matthews Associates; and Windermere Jetty Museum, Lake District, by Carmody Groarke.

2021 Stirling Prize winner: Town House at Kingston University London, Grafton Architects

‘What is architecture?’ asked Grafton Architects’ Yvonne Farrell, as she walked through the brightly lit halls of the studio’s newly completed building at Kingston University, giving us a tour when the building opened in early 2020. ‘It is a place for social interaction,’ she added a moment later. Community was a key factor in the design decisions of RIBA Gold Medal-winning Grafton Architects, which won the commission to create a structure to – rather unusually – combine a library and dance studios under a single roof. Welcome to Town House – the newest addition (named after an existing building on the site) to the world-class academic institution in London’s south-west. 

aerial hero shot from afar of the Town House for Kingston University by Grafton in London

It was, in fact, this intriguing combination – the need for vibrant dance spaces next to discreet reading rooms – that attracted the Dublin-based architects, who were selected to design the project from a five-strong shortlist following a competition in 2013. ‘It was the juxtaposition of these two extremes that we found extraordinarily interesting,’ explains Farrell, who heads the practice together with Shelley McNamara. This, and the idea of creating a space for the local community – both students and permanent Kingston residents – were the two pillars that shaped Grafton’s vision for the design. 

Stepping inside, their intention becomes instantly apparent through the sheer openness of the building – both physical and symbolic. There are no barriers towards the street, so anybody can walk in and stroll around the library or get a coffee at the canteen. It was important for both architects and client that the building felt welcoming to all. ‘Generosity of scale and spirit form part of the university,’ says Farrell.

What the judges and Grafton Architects said

The judges praised the building’s openness, collaborative approach, functionality and originality. ‘Kingston University Town House is a theatre for life – a warehouse of ideas. It seamlessly brings together student and town communities, creating a progressive new model for higher education, well deserving of international acclaim and attention,’ says 2021 RIBA Stirling Prize jury chair Lord Norman Foster. ‘In this highly original work of architecture, quiet reading, loud performance, research and learning, can delightfully co-exist. That is no mean feat. Education must be our future – and this must be the future of education.’

‘We imagined a place where students would feel at home,’ say Farrell and McNamara. ‘This building is about people, interaction, light, possibilities. It is about connecting to the community, the passer-by, an invitation to cross the threshold; a three-dimensional framework with layers of silence and layers of sound. Space, volume and light are the organisers. The building’s edges are not boundaries but active gathering spaces, terraces, galleries. Being outside under the big sky is always just a few steps away. Kingston University gave us this educational vision which we translated into a spatial open matrix. We are absolutely delighted the Kingston Town House has won the prestigious Stirling Prize.’ §

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