Building’s architecture critic Ike Ijeh says this year’s Stirling Prize is a victory for the street as well as architecture

Ike Ijeh

Not only did this year’s RIBA Stirling Prize produce a better shortlist than last year’s but it has also produced the best winner since Haworth Tompkin’s soulful reworking of Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre in 2014. Caruso St. John’s quietly exquisite Newport Street Gallery is a thoroughly deserving winner and thankfully proves that as with the Everyman, the civic concept of the street is as much the victor as the building itself.

As with Haworth Tompkins’ victory two years ago, it is impossible to separate the Newport Street Gallery from its wider impact on the street and by extension the city. The gallery is as much an exercise in urban needlework as architectural expertise as its deft sequence of brick facades and jutting rooflines carefully weave and stitch themselves almost unnoticed into the surrounding streetscape.

Do not take this almost painfully realised subtlety for reticence or timidity for there is almost a theatrical conviction in the manner in which the new building immerses itself so wholeheartedly into the irregularity, irreverence and informality that characterises London’s hidden backstreet hinterlands. As the judges themselves observe, it achieves this with real poetry and drama, forging a vivid new urban scenography that maintains its own unique individuality and presence but is nonetheless forensically attuned to the city’s wider urban character.

British architecture is rightly recognised across the world but here in Britain much of architecture has lost the ability to relate to the street

And it is this wider character that is the point here for the urban lessons that Newport Street offers were perhaps never more desperately in demand. British architecture is rightly recognised across the world but here in Britain much of architecture has lost the ability to relate to the street.

Just yards from Newport Street Gallery the gaudy junta of new developments around Vauxhall and Battersea are rising threateningly on the horizon. The contrast between what they and the gallery represent could not be greater. While one development celebrates the street the others suppress it proposing instead wave upon wave of anonymous high rises that say nothing to either street or city and could just as easily be built almost anywhere else in the world.

Where at Battersea or its contemporaries is the sense of place that architects and planners so covet but rarely achieve? Where is the personality and individuality that makes streets and cities unique? And most importantly, what efforts are being made to not only identify but understand the amorphous but critical ingredients upon which all-important urban character is based?

Alas, on much of Britain’s new streetscape and particularly in rampantly redeveloping London, this level of skill and observation is in painfully short supply. Newport Street Gallery provides a rare of example of it and should be a potent lesson to us all.