The RIBA 2011 Stirling shortlist has been announced and it brings with it an unmistakable sense of déjà vu. Stirling veterans AHMM, David Chipperfield and last year’s worthy winner Zaha Hadid are all represented once again with muted versions of earlier winning schemes. Stirling’s predilection for cultural buildings is also in fine form with half the shortlist devoted to them. And the obligatory token olive-branch has been extended to a practice few have ever heard of.

Bennetts Associates celebrated Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon has had a good year and now tops it with a chance of winning the biggest architectural prize of them all. The theatre is a meticulous study in empathy and engagement, deftly weaving new into old to create a layered architectural tapestry that is competent rather than captivating. Less subtle is Chipperfield’s Folkwang Museum in Essen, Germany. For the past decade Chipperfield has skilfully spun his laser-cut minimalism into a coveted stylistic brand but Folkwang shows it is in danger of unravelling into a tiresome cliché. No-matter how intricately crafted they may be, there are presumably only so many variations of a chiselled glass or stone box museums across Europe and North America can take.

The last cultural offering is an altogether more virile affair. The interior of O'Donnell and Tuomey’s An Gaeleras is a thrusting, chaotic vortex of plunging planes and rugged surfaces; one suspects the building would literally burst free were it not hemmed in on either side on its narrow gap site. While the facade is an awkward screen of splayed angles, the interior is pure excitement. Zaha Hadid’s Evelyn Grace Academy sings loudly from the same melodramatic hymn-sheet. With its metallic surfaces and swooping, interlocking lines this school has all the mechanised kinetic energy of a Transformer. Its relentless motion and dynamic form are only partially compromised by the heaviness of much of its detailing.

The last two nominees harbour the surprises. AHMM’s Angel Building is a comprehensive refurbishment of a decrepit 1980s office block. Its majestic full-height central atrium is undoubtedly a joyous space and is encased in some of the most exquisitely crisp concrete surfaces you are ever likely to see anywhere. But its exteriors are little more than bland, soulless steel and glass grids. Is this really the best office building by a British architect this year?

But the biggest surprise is an altogether more pleasant one. If Hopkins' Velodrome - the favourite - wins, it will be the first time the prize has been awarded to a sports building. This is without doubt Hopkins' best London and arguably UK work since Westminster Station and it thoroughly deserves to win. The topical and political expediency of 2012 being round the corner will certainly help but if realised, its victory will be based entirely on its own merits. This virtuoso steel and timber drum has a sculptural grace and voluptuous elegance that casts a stunning silhouette across the Olympic Park. Add to that ingenious structural efficiency and sheer engineering prowess and you have the uncontested architectural star of London 2012.

My tutor at university once informed me that sports stadia and arenas aren’t “real” architecture. With or without the Stirling, the Velodrome has emphatically proved him wrong.


The Stirling prize winner will be announced on Saturday 1st October and the ceremony will be shown live on BBC2. The full shortlist is below:

  • An Gaelaras, Derry: O'Donnell and Tuomey
  • The Angel Building, London: AHMM
  • Evelyn Grace Academy, London: Zaha Hadid
  • Folkwang Museum, Essen, Germany: David Chipperfield
  • Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon: Bennetts Associates
  • 2012 Olympic Velodrome, London: Michael Hopkins