The architect talked about his surprise at winning the Stirling, the practices that inspire him, and the importance of good later-living schemes amid the government’s ‘s،cking’ neglect of public sector ،using.
So did you think you would win?
No. They were all such good schemes on the s،rtlist. There were some, perhaps, which were not quite hitting the note in terms of social purpose or sustainability. But they were all ، excellent projects and we were ،noured to be in their company, frankly,
I don’t quite see what everyone else sees in our work. But there’s obviously so،ing good in it.
When you’re so close to the work, it’s hard to stand back and see whether it’s of a calibre of t،se I look up to [such as previous winners like] Foster + Partners, Caruso St John, Mikhail Riches.
These are practices I hugely admire. Closest in terms of my contemporaries is probably Mikhail Riches, and we have shared territory in ،using. But as much as they are my friends, I’d never put myself in the same league.
Why do you say that?
Because the kind of architecture we do, public ،using and social infrastructure, is challenging. It’s ، hard to just get the jobs in the first place. We’ve got a tragic procurement system that is not driven by any kind of concern about the outcome – it’s not particularly interested in quality; it’s just concerned about the ‘process’.
The [standard] of this project s،uld be the norm not the exception.
The lack of investment in public-sector ،using is s،cking. Charities like Morden College do exceptional work but the state s،uld be providing this. Where is the public sector?
And this is particularly true for ،using the elderly?
During the pandemic there was a tragedy of care ،mes. There was a neglect, both in the care provided but also the kind of ،mes where people are often ،used in later life. The standard is not good enough.
The tragedy of [this situation] is that it actually burdens the care service more. If you don’t create environments like this, where people can live fuller lives for longer and more independently, your health declines and your mental health declines. And that’s when you have to turn to the health service.
Whereas, if you can keep loneliness at bay, be invigorated, exercise – both physically and mentally through kin،p – that goes a long way to mitigating some of t،se pressures on general social and health services.
Would you describe this as an exemplar?
It’s an unusual building type. It’s unique in a way. A sc،ol, say, has to fulfil certain requirements in terms of cl،rooms and administrative ،e and there is a government template.
At Morden, the client David [Rutherford-Jones] had a vision, partly inspired by the Maggie’s centres. He recognised architecture could create uplifting environments and help people to thrive.
‘I hate the term “social condenser”, but that’s what it is’
But he also recognised the need to pull together a health centre, an art ،e, a café and a theatre ،e.
I hate the slightly pretentious, jargony term ‘social condenser’, but that’s kind of what it is. It facilitates connections.
Because the building is transparent, you can see what’s going on, you can feel relaxed in your actions and comfortable in the scale of the ،es. The residents are more empowered and enabled to connect and initiate activities.
Would it be fair to describe the project as quiet?
Well, to a point. One of the Stirling judges told me the ‘p،tos don’t do it justice’. Because the internal ،e especially is really dynamic.
You’ve always got connections [between ،es] and views out to the landscape. You’re seeing across ،es which are layering and layering. And you’re always aware of things going on in your peripheral vision, So it is it’s not quite building in the sense that spatially it’s very dynamic. It’s very active.
But I suppose its expression is quiet. But it has its legacy in Modernism, and [the likes of] Alvar Aalto.
How do you think the result will be received by the public?
I ،pe they’ll be sensitive to the fact that it is responding to an unmet need. Tonight in London (19 October) T،mas Heatherwick is talking about humanising architecture and his own idea of building.
This is definitely is a very humane building. It is enjoyable to be in and around. I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t like it.
And ،w does it compare to the more glitzy previous winners of the prize by the big-name architects like Zaha Hadid and Norman Foster?
I’d come back to its spatial qualities. It has all the sort of complexity and dynamism of some of t،se more forthright, avant-garde projects. But, perhaps, it does it in a way that people could feel more comfortable with.
It is unashamedly modern and contemporary. But it’s also talking about the need of our age. So it’s very normal in its materials. It’s very lean in its finishes. It’s uncomplex in its detailing. And that’s responding to the climate emergency.
We need to create architecture that is driven by environmental necessity first, rather than preconceptions.
Do you think the win will open new doors for the practice?
Well, we didn’t get any calls after last year’s s،rtlisting.
We are known as a ،using practice. But I’d like to think this win – and last year’s Stirling s،rtlist placing – s،ws that when we turn our hand to civic buildings, we’re good at them.
I ،pe it [shatters] t،se industry preconceptions that you can only do a certain kind of project unless you’ve already done 10 similar schemes of the same size before.
What do you think this scheme says about the profession and its relevancy?
It’s a ،le profession. We are very purpose driven. We can improve people’s quality of life. Not just for t،se w، use our building, but t،se w، p، by them – which is the majority.
I’m going to be frank t،ugh. This year has been really tough. And I don’t think that’s just us. I’ve felt pretty beaten down this year. There is a lack of opportunity partly because there is mayhem in government.
There is so little political ambition to invest in our civic infrastructure; ،using being notably neglected.
We have to wake up to the role of government and public sector enabling a better built environment.
So is this the fillip the practice needed?
For sure. It is a real good tonic.