Did the Sainsbury Laboratory deserve the Stirling Prize?

Oct 15, 2012

Rival complains at losing out to building that doesn't 'excite' him but critics praise the judges' decision

Stanton Williams

THE Sainsbury Laboratory in Cambridge was the surprise winner of the Stirling Prize for architecture this weekend. It was not a favourite of the critics, bookies or the public – but nevertheless took home the top prize at the 'architectural Oscars' on Saturday night.

The Lyric Theatre in Belfast had wowed the press and the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield was the bookies' 3/1 tip to win the Royal Institute of British Architects' award. Unsurprisingly, the Olympic Stadium was seen as the people's choice. But instead of these, the building of the year was a project that had received little attention: the University of Cambridge's £82m new science laboratory, designed by architects Stanton Williams.

Hepworth Gallery director Simon Wallis took to his blog to express his disappointment. "I want to be a gracious loser with regard to the Stirling Prize," he said. "But it was especially hard to lose to a building with an enormous budget (dwarfing ours) in an extremely privileged city, and a project to which the public barely have access.

"It isn't a building that excites me at all from the photographs I've seen, but of course I reserve full judgement until I do, if I ever do get access."

However, The Guardian's Oliver Wainwright insisted that the judges "got it right". The architects behind the building, Stanton Williams, had "recast what might once have been an anonymous prefab shed, housing a functional stack of labs and pipes, into nothing short of a temple to botany," he said.

Too often, the Stirling shortlist favours arts and cultural projects over buildings that perform complex functions or provide routine backdrops to our daily lives, said Wainwright. "Formal novelty has frequently trumped thoughtful pragmatism." He argued that Stanton Williams had "reinvented this difficult typology, an achievement that could have an important influence beyond this one building".

Edwin Heathcote wrote in The Financial Times that the award was a move away from the domination of the "super-starchitects" whose work has dominated the prize in recent years, such as Zaha Hadid and Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners.

"The Sainsbury Laboratory is not the instant national treasure that is the Olympic Stadium, which would have been the publicity-winning choice," said Rowan Moore in The Observer. "Nor does it have the impact of David Chipperfield's Hepworth in Wakefield. It is, however, good architecture, which is what the Stirling is about. In a year when all the shortlisted schemes would have been admirable winners, the laboratory deserves to win."

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