When the University of Oxford opened their new £75 million school of government in May, there was a demonstration outside.
Not because it resembled nothing so much as a stack of shiny film reels plonked down opposite the honey-coloured neoclassical headquarters of the University Press on Walton Street, but because it had been named in honour of Len Blavatnik, the controversial USSR-born oligarch reputed to have had links with Vladimir Putin.
Now the Blavatnik School of Government – designed by Hertzog & de Meuron, the serious Swiss pair responsible for the new Tate Modern Switch House — has become the leading contender for the Stirling Prize, awarded to the best new British building each year. Howls of outrage from alumni, Russian dissidents and the occasional aesthete have failed to move the Royal Institute of British Architects.
The University of Oxford is responsible for two of the projects on the six-strong shortlist this year, the other one being Wilkinson Eyre’s crisply beautiful restoration of the Weston Library, originally designed by the great Sir Giles Gilbert Scott of Battersea Power Station fame, which is probably the polar opposite of the Blavatnik, being both sympathetic and meritorious.
With the addition of the uninspiring modernist Riverside Campus at the City of Glasgow College, by Michael Laird Architects & Reiach and Hall Architects, half of the shortlist is made up of educational establishments, with a partly-subterranean house on a sloping plot in the Forest of Dean (by Loyn & Co) and a housing block in the Elephant and Castle (dRMM) making up the numbers. It’s fair to say that it has not been a vintage year for British architecture.
The one project that may give the Blavatnik School of Government a run for its money is the Newport Street Gallery by Caruso St John, a much-lauded but underemployed firm who are likely to prove popular with an insular judging panel comprised of architects, a property speculator and the sculptor Rachel Whiteread CBE.
The gallery is intended to show off the work of another, more famous British artist: Damien Hirst.
Opened in October last year, the £25 million gallery in Vauxhall, London, merged three existing brick warehouses built in 1913 into an immaculate exhibition space for Hirst’s own work and standout items pieces from his collection, including work by Francis Bacon, Tracey Emin and Pablo Picasso. It has deservedly proved popular with critics and, more importantly, the public.
“Every one of the six buildings shortlisted illustrates the huge benefit that well-designed buildings can bring to people’s lives,” Jane Duncan, the RIBA president, said yesterday.
“The shortlisted projects are each fantastic new additions to their individual locations – on an urban street, a city riverside, an estate regeneration, an historic city centre and a hidden part of the countryside – but their stand-out common quality is the inspiration they will bring to those who study, live, visit and pass by them. To me, this shortlist reflects everything that is great about UK architecture: a blend of experimental, artistic vision and a commitment to changing people’s lives for the better.”
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