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Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Can a Northern Irish building win the Stirling Prize?

The winner of the annual RIBA Stirling Prize for architecture will be revealed tomorrow evening, September 26th 2013, at a ceremony in Central St Martins, London, and for the third time in as many years we have great reason to be excited here in Northern Ireland. Undoubtedly the most prestigious award for architecture in the UK, the Stirling Prize is awarded to the building which has made the biggest contribution to the evolution of architecture, and celebrates some of the disciplines greatest achievements. This year, the Giant’s Causeway Visitors Centre, by Irish architects Heneghan Peng, is a serious contender in the final shortlist of six buildings, drawn from 52 regional award winners from all over the UK.

Heneghan Peng's Giant's Causeway Visitor Centre.

When O’Donnell + Tuomey’s An Gaeláras Irish Language Centre in Derry/Londonderry was nominated in 2011 it represented the first building in Northern Ireland to reach the Stirling shortlist, but missed out to Zaha Hadid’s first London project, the Evelyn Grace Academy. In 2012, The Lyric Theatre, Belfast, once again drew attention to Northern Ireland for positive reasons as it too managed to make the shortlist but lost out to the very beautiful Sainsbury Laboratory by Stanton Williams. Now, the black basalt and folded landscape of the Causeway Visitors Centre has us eagerly anticipating a potential win not just for Northern Ireland but also for Irish architecture generally. It is up against a shortlist which ranges from the small but exquisite Bishop Edward King Chapel in rural Oxfordshire by Niall McLaughlin (trained in Dublin), Dublin based Grafton Architects University of Limerick building and bus shelter (the only building from the EU section of the RIBA awards to make the shortlist this year), an 84 unit housing scheme in Newhall Be by Alison Brooks Architects, the refurbishment of a 1950s housing block in Sheffield, and finally the very interesting re-use of the fire ravaged ruins of twelfth century Astley Castle by Witherford Watson Mann for The Landmark Trust.

O'Donnell + Tuomey's An Gaeláras, Derry~Londonderry.

A Stirling Prize win for a building in Northern Ireland would of course be something very special, but whether the building wins or not is almost irrelevant when we consider the bigger picture. What is more encouraging and exciting is what this building along with the MAC by Hackett Hall McKnight, the Lyric Theatre and An Gaeláras are starting to represent: a small but growing pattern of new public buildings which contribute not only to a revitalised cultural landscape through the activities they house, but through their strong architectural design qualities and presence are starting to conjure up a new positive identity for Northern Ireland.

Hackett Hall McKnight's MAC, Belfast.

Among the distinguished panel of judges, is the new RIBA President, Stephen Hodder - having himself been the very first recipient of the award in 1996 with his University of Salford Centenary Building he will no doubt take great pleasure in helping announce this years winner. Hodder, who took over the presidency on September 1st, almost immediately announced plans to begin research in to the value of architecture in a bid to give more weight to the argument for good design telling Building Design Magazine “What’s missing is the evidence. If we can demonstrate that architecture can bring economic value or improve performance in workplaces or engender a better sense of community, we can elevate design up the government’s agenda.”

This kind of thinking is important not just to our public buildings but to the design of all aspects of our built environment - let us hope the success of this small group of buildings which are starting to attract serious interest from outside our island - and for all the right reasons - is just a small step in the right direction.

Jane Larmour

Jane Larmour MRIAI is an architect and PhD Researcher in Architectural History at the Belfast School of Architecture, University of Ulster. She is involved in design practice, research and education. [email protected]

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