The Stirling Prize Shortlist Is Full Of Surprise

Lordy, no lords! Women-led practices! See the six finalists–and why such a starchitect-free list is still a shocker.

The six finalists for the 2013 Stirling Prize have been announced, and the big surprise? Well, there are a couple. The first is the conspicuous lack of marquee names like Hadid, Rogers, Foster. The second is the predominance of women architects, which is of course, disturbing for the fact that a half-female presence on such a list is still considered a shocker.


For several years now, the Stirling committee, organized by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), has favored flashy icons and the starchitects behind them. Zaha Hadid took home the trophy in 2010 and 2011 for her MAXXI museum in Rome and her Evelyn Grace Academy in London. Foster was awarded the prize in 2004 for his Gherkin, while other big names, like Richard Rogers, Herzog & de Meuron, and David Chipperfield, have all won or garnered nominations in the past.

The Bishop Edward King Chapel by Niall McLaughlin Architects

This year’s shortlist, however, consists of six relatively small-to-medium sized firms, with little to no name recognition. Half of those practices are operated by women, a point that the RIBA was quick to establish. Few outside the architectural world are aware of the chauvinism built into the business of designing buildings, making the RIBA’s pat-on-the-back that much more irritating. Also certainly at the forefront of the RIBA committee’s thoughts: the Pritzker Prize’s recent refusal to give Denise Scott Brown shared honors with her husband and partner Robert Venturi (1991 Pritzker laureate) and the subsequent outcry the episode sparked.

But we’ll continue onto this year’s selections. The most seductive entry is Niall McLaughlin Architects‘ Bishop Edward King Chapel, whose textured limestone exterior and lush timber interiors are expected to win over the jury. The structure’s palatable brand of modernism–near-platonic geometries, sculptural yet restrained interiors–pairs ideally with the manicured hills in which its set.

Astley Castle renovation by Witherford Watson Mann Architects

While McLaughlin’s chapel flirts with the forms of Britain’s architectural heritage (namely via Gothic Revivalism), the Astley Castle very much inserts itself in that past. The project, by Witherford Watson Mann Architects, features the restoration of a ruined 12th-century brick manor, plus a contemporary addition slotted right into the bones of the old house.

Hawkins/Brown‘s modification of Park Hill has marred what was once a Brutalist castle for workers and low-income families. Designed by Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith in the late ’50s, the estate has been sleekly retrofitted and expanded. The development, which was undertaken in collaboration with Studio Egret West, gutted the original structure but left its concrete frame intact. Naive splashes of color aim to ameliorate the weathered (but heroic) grey concrete, while collective features of the original design–like the so-called “streets in the sky”–have been absorbed into the floor plans of the new units.

Newhall Be, Essex, by Alison Brooks Architects

Essex’s Newhall Be complex by Alison Brooks Architects aims to reinvent, even “densify” the suburban housing paradigm. The scheme comprises 84 homes configured into a tight, checkerboard composition of driveways and rear fenced-in courtyards. The homes are tied together by formal cues and a consistent black timber cladding.


Grafton Architects has turned in an impressive campus for Limerick University, in a plan that consists of a new medical building and student housing blocks. It’s satisfying that the latter are as sumptuously detailed and sensitively handled as the singular medical structure. All of the components add up to a thoughtful, humanist approach to planning.

The Giant’s Great Causeway new visitor center sits at the edge of Northern Ireland’s Antrim Coast. You couldn’t ask for a more picturesque site, and the Heneghan Peng Architects don’t squander it. They partially bury the structure into the side of the landscape, an illusion that benefits from the sprawling roof garden that tops the building. The architecture is animated by an irregular sequence of basalt columns, separated by glass panes that admit light and frame views up to the seaside.

All in all, the showings this year are strong enough that it would be impossible to miss architectural dominance by the much celebrated or the male. The Bishop Edward King Chapel may be the stuff Architecture is made of, but I’m rooting for Grafton. What about you?


About the author

Sammy is a writer, designer, and ice cream maker based in New York. He once lived in China before being an editor at Architizer.