Kingston University’s Town House has been named the winner of the 2021 Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) Stirling Prize – confirming it as Britain’s best new building.
Designed by RIBA Gold Medal-winning Grafton Architects, the landmark building on the University’s Penrhyn Road campus received the highest accolade in UK architecture at a prestigious ceremony at Coventry Cathedral.
Town House was one of six structures on this year’s Stirling Prize shortlist. It was vying for top honours alongside 15 Clerkenwell Close in London, Cambridge Central Mosque, the University of Cambridge’s Eddington key worker housing development, Tintagel Castle Footbridge in Cornwall and Cumbria’s Windermere Jetty Museum.
The building, opened in January 2020, was named winner by a jury of eminent architects and industry experts, made up of Lord Norman Foster, RIBA President Simon Alford, Dame Phyllida Barlow, sustainability expert Mina Hasman and previous RIBA Stirling Prize recipient Annalie Riches.
Announcing Town House as this year’s winner, jury chair Lord Foster said that after long deliberations the jury had decided the winning project was about the future – about younger generations and first generation students.
“Kingston University’s Town House is a theatre for life – a warehouse of ideas. It seamlessly brings together student and town communities, creating a progressive new model for higher education, well deserving of international acclaim and attention,” he said. “In this highly original work of architecture, quiet reading, loud performance, research and learning can delightfully co-exist. That is no mean feat. Education must be our future – and this must be the future of education.”
Conceived as part of a bold vision to create an inspirational new learning space that also acts as a gateway to the Penrhyn Road campus for the wider community, the project to deliver Town House began with a RIBA design competition won by Grafton Architects in 2013. Built by three-time Education Constructor of the Year Willmott Dixon Construction, the Stirling Prize-winning building comprises a three-floor academic library, archive, dance studios and a studio theatre, a covered courtyard and cafes on the ground and fifth floors.
With an open design that encourages people to move in and around the building and views looking down on its expansive entrance and exhibition space from several floors, Town House incorporates a range of internal and external features including a rooftop garden, balconies and an outdoor reading garden.
Grafton’s selection of reconstituted stone for Town House’s colonnade acknowledges the grade II listed Surrey County Hall building opposite, without compromising the new building’s contemporary expression. It also meets the University’s sustainability commitments, with the colonnade providing solar shading, cooling the building and reducing energy consumption, with other features including a photovoltaic array and landscaping designed to support increased biodiversity.
In their award-winning design for Town House, Grafton had delivered on an incredibly ambitious brief, Kingston University Vice-Chancellor Professor Steven Spier said. They had created an inspiring and interactive space, that not only enhanced students’ learning but also softened the threshold between gown and town.
“The Stirling Prize confirms Town House as a world-class building and a fitting foil to the aspirations of our students, many of whom are the first in their families to go to university. It is invigorating to witness the creativity, collaboration and shared learning this open, inviting space fosters. Our students have embraced Town House, relishing the opportunity to find their place within it and make its many spaces their own,” he said.
“Working with an architecture practice of Grafton’s substantial expertise and international stature on what was their first building in the United Kingdom has enabled us to attain our bold vision for Town House – an achievement of which our students, staff and the wider community are truly proud.”
Commencing the process of finding an exceptional architect by using a RIBA design competition demonstrated the value Kingston University placed on excellent design, the University’s Director of Estates and Sustainability, Sean Woulfe, said.
“We wanted Town House to be unique and, in Grafton, we found a practice that understood our ambition. They have led the delivery of a Stirling Prize-winning building that seamlessly incorporates such disparate uses as a library, dance studios and studio theatre. Town House has transformed the image of the University in the borough, becoming a catalyst for changing the way we do things.
“The building was brought to life by Willmott Dixon Construction, with its design features enhanced by excellent construction quality. They delivered on Grafton’s vision, understanding the importance of ensuring the quality of the finish across all aspects of the building met the highest expectations.”
Grafton Architects’ Shelley McNamara said the practice had imagined a place where students would feel completely at home. “This building is about people, interaction, light, possibilities,” she said. “It is about connecting to the community, the passer-by, an invitation to cross the threshold – a three dimensional framework with layers of silence and layers of sound. Space, volume and light are the organisers.
“The building edges are not boundaries but active gathering spaces, terraces, galleries. Being outside under the big sky is always just a few steps away. Kingston University gave us this educational vision which we translated into a spatial open matrix.”