Congratulations – again – to Cambridge

What an interesting choice the Sainsbury Laboratory in Cambridge, designed by Stanton Williams, was as winner of the Stirling Prize. It was a kind of stealth winner. While the Olympic Stadium was heralded as the popular choice (the choice of the Populous?), architectural pundits mostly argued that the winner would be Chipperfield (again) for the Hepworth in Wakefield, or O’Donnell and Tuomey for the Lyric Theatre in Belfast.

Rory Olcayto wrote in the AJ about Mark Jones’ hints about front runners, ‘Jones can’t mean Stanton Williams’ Sainsbury Lab, even if it sends a message that architecture can affirm the strength of British scientific research. This argument is wrong-headed. Scientific talent is not so much drawn to smooth render and York stone paving as it is to the best equipment and the best scientific minds. CERN, home of the Large Hadron Collider and where staff accommodation is bog standard, is proof. And at five grand a square metre, the architectural achievement at Cambridge looks less convincing.’

The argument about scientists putting up with rubbish accommodation is exactly the one that Lord Sainsbury was trying to lay to rest – and there is an argument that the great surroundings will also attract the best brains. Journalists after all also love their jobs and are prepared to put up with bad environments – but does that mean they should?
Another reason that this seems like a ‘stealth choice’ is that this is not the Stanton Williams building that has received great popular attention – that distinction has gone to its new home for Central Saint Martins in King’s Cross.

One factor that has received little notice is that this is the second building in a particular quarter of Cambridge to win the Stirling Prize. The first was the very different Accordia housing development which took the award in 2008. Both these are away from the magnet of the historic colleges, but both house the brainpower that defines the best work of the university – one as living accommodation and the other as a working environment. One can’t imagine that Lord Sainsbury would have made this donation to an institution that was struggling in the research assessment stakes.

Brains obviously draw money and with it the ability for good design to flourish. This government doesn’t seem to set much store by learning and positively wants to keep foreign brain power out. The  Stirling judges evidently did not choose a building that was on message for a political agenda, since other choices would have made a stronger point. But there may still be a lesson here.







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