Five reasons why I’m glad Goldsmith Street won the Stirling Prize...and one reason I wish it hadn't

This year's winner of the RIBA Stirling Prize was Mikhail Riches and Cathy Hawley, for their development of 100 new council homes in Norwich. All of the homes met the Passivhaus Standard, meaning they're amongst the most sustainable in the UK.

Here are five reasons why I think this project was the deserving winner, and one reason I wish somebody else had won.

They said it couldn’t be done

Goldsmiths Street has successfully proved that it's possible to build high-quality council-owned housing that is energy efficient and architecturally sophisticated.

For too long, housing has been firmly the domain of developers. And apart from a few enlightened exceptions, this has resulted in a general ‘watering down’ of housing into a mere commodity with little value to society at large. Their collective argument has always been that sustainable housing like that at Goldsmiths isn’t cost-effective. What they mean is, it’s cheaper to build poor quality housing, so they get to make a bigger profit by doing so.

It gives normal people the chance to experience high-quality sustainable architecture

Goldsmiths is a rare example of high-quality architecture that ‘normal people’ can benefit from every day. It’s not a destination, or a landmark (although it deserves to be). It’s people’s homes. Those lucky families will experience what it’s like to use well-made well-designed buildings every day, and that (I hope) will make them more conscious of the important role architecture can play. In turn, that will means that developers have to sit up and listen, and up their game significantly.

Intelligent use of materials

There is a mere handful of materials used on this project, but they’re used intelligently. In particular, the brick facades are a key feature that roots this development into its context and gives it a real sense of place. And by simply changing the way those bricks are stacked, all manner of different effects has been created.

It’s real council housing

At the risk of being a complete hypocrite, I think homeownership has caused far more problems than it’s solved. It is the reason why housing is seen as a commodity, and why people struggle to afford to put a roof over their head.

The one concern I do have is that the Right To Buy is going to completely undo all of the hard work that went into making this development so unique. For this to be a sustainable model, council’s can’t be expected to keep churning them out. They need to keep hold of them and gradually build a decent stock of quality housing.

Everyone gets a front door

It’s a simple but generous gesture. Every home gets a front door, even the apartments. It’s impossible to quantify the benefits of this, but I can’t help but feel it just puts everyone in the community on a level playing field and gives everyone their own identity. Somehow it’s just the right thing to do.

And the reason I wish it didn’t win?

Yet another London architect wins the Stirling Prize. Ok, it’s a bit of a flippant comment and it doesn't make the architects of this scheme any less deserving. But I do worry there is a serious lack of acknowledgement by the RIBA of the talent that exists elsewhere in the UK.

This year, it’s probably fair to say that Goldsmiths was the rightful winner, but I think in its entire history, the Stirling Prize has only ever been awarded to one practice that wasn’t based in London. Have the best projects of the last twenty-four years really all been designed by architects in London?

Maybe they have, but if that’s the case, then surely this points to the fact that the RIBA needs to do more work outside of London, to promote the profession. Then, maybe architects outside of the M25 will have the same opportunities as those inside.

David HollandComment