Short of Stirling?

Regeneration & Renewal, 31 October 2008

Pictures: Bob Johns/UNP

The Accordia housing development in Cambridge has just won the UK’s top architectural award, but our expert sees flaws as well as virtues. Tamar Wilner reports.

The Gherkin, the Scottish Parliament, Gateshead Millennium Bridge … they’re all structures you can understand the Stirling Prize judges going for. They’re funky, iconic, and – though this might aggrieve some in Edinburgh, where the Holyrood building is as much criticised as celebrated – unavoidably there. These are big structures for big purposes, raised up where no-one can miss them. Their highest calling is to serve as visual rallying points, encapsulating and advertising their respective cities.

Against that background, the winner of this year’s Riba Stirling prize, the most prestigious award in UK architecture, was a surprise. Accordia is, for a start, a housing development – the first to win the prize in its 13-year history. Nestled in 9ha of wooded land on the edge of Cambridge, the project consists of both private housing and social housing for Wherry Housing Association. It is shaped neither like a pickled cucumber nor like a winking eye, but rather more like an old-fashioned neighbourhood.

The scheme’s win earlier this month certainly took its architects by surprise. “I thought Westminster Academy would win,” says Keith Bradley, whose firm Feilden Clegg Bradley won the £20,000 prize with its fellow designers on the scheme, Maccreanor Lavington and Alison Brooks Architects. “Because it is housing, it’s not meant to be too shouty. I thought it would go to something a bit more glitzy.”

The chair of the judging panel, Gordon Murray, says Accordia’s win “heralds the start of a more architectural approach to developer-led housing. What interested the jury what that it was a developer-led, edge-of-town development.” Among the scheme’s selling points, he says, was the creation of a variety of public and semi-public spaces between buildings; a unified use of materials across the development; rooms that can change function as residents’ lives change; and a largely car-free environment.

Chris Crook, managing director for the southern region at housebuilder Countryside Properties, which built the scheme, is proud of the project’s affordable housing. Social homes make up 113 of the 376 units. “I challenge anybody to go round Accordia and say they can spot the difference (between social and private housing),” he says.

Always up for a challenge, Regeneration & Renewal took a trip to Cambridge with Paul Joslin, director at design consultancy Barton Willmore, acting as independent critic to inspect the development.

Is this scheme worthy of a Stirling Prize?

The private housing is well detailed and beautifully executed. The brick is the local Cambridge colour. They’ve tried to make it look like a handmade brick, with lovely variation in tone. The quality of the wood is excellent, and the wooden panels beside the windows open to allow ventilation. In your average scheme, the wood wouldn’t be as high a quality and the brick would be horribly plain. They’ve also used aluminium window frames. Other developers would use PVC.

There’s a continuity of style throughout, but also some nice contrasts. Some of the blocks are a bit more out there, with protruding boxes and so on. Some, like the four- and five-storey town houses, are much more simple, which provides a kind of relief.

How does the social housing compare with the private homes?

It looks quite like the private housing at first glance. But if you look at the window frames on the social housing, they are a standard size and thickness, whereas just across the road in the private housing, the developers said: “We’ll make this stuff bespoke.” If you look at the colour of the bricks above the garages, they have clearly been added at a later date. In my opinion, that’s just laziness, and they can get away with it because they don’t have to sell those houses.

How do the shared gardens work in practice?

The architects have said that their concept was one of “living in a garden”, and I think they have achieved that. They had an advantage in the scheme’s setting: a former Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) campus with many mature trees. This scheme shows the importance of managing mature vegetation.

The spaces between the buildings create an important sense of intimacy. The shared gardens are beautifully designed. But they’re ill-defined. One resident complained to me that she keeps seeing outsiders pass through the residents-only garden, and I take her point. The houses face that garden with huge picture windows, and it can be unnerving if you’re sitting in your living room and someone you don’t know passes by one foot away. You might be able to overcome that difficulty just by using a higher fence on the shared private garden. Or they could have put a strip of private space just next to the window.

Any other disappointments?

The public garden is the least successful space for me. There’s no way I’d take my children there. There are three pieces of play equipment but they’re nowhere near each other. If you come with more than one kid, you wouldn’t be able to supervise all of them at once. But it’s not really a grown-up space either. None of the benches look like places where you’d want to sit. And they ruined the nicest bit, the tree, by putting decking all around it. I might be put off buying a house here because I don’t understand what this space is about.

Does the scheme lose out because most of the homes don’t have private gardens?

It does mean that the homes appeal to fewer people. Though I have a great respect for the design, I wouldn’t choose to live here as a family person – especially not if I was spending the kind of money that they’re asking for – because I quite like a garden. If you look at these wooden terraces, which comprise most of the private outdoor spaces, how useful is that going to be as a children’s play space?

What role does the public space play in the social housing?

The social housing I’ve seen has private gardens and doesn’t back on to any of the shared gardens. I can understand that: social landlords discourage architects from putting in a lot of communal space, because it’s difficult to manage. But as you move across the development from private to social housing, from the provision of public space that is quite generous, it suddenly becomes mean-spirited.

What lessons from Accordia could be applied to schemes elsewhere in the UK?

Like any well-designed scheme, Accordia is a response to its environment. The semi-private space, though it’s not perfect, does largely work in this kind of setting. It would be much harder to make it work in a harsh urban environment because the security issues would be that much greater.

Overall, I think a scheme of this quality would work only in higher-end-value areas. As a developer, you’d be crazy to apply this level of quality across the board. So they are going to do it where they see they are going to be able to reap the benefit of added value.

What should be learned, however, is that contemporary architecture – modern, simple architecture – can work extremely well, and is a much better design response than pastiche. At the very least, it’s provocative. And that’s what the business is all about.

The other finalists

Five schemes competed against Accordia for the 2008 Riba Stirling Prize. They were:

Bijlmer Station, Amsterdam

Architects: Grimshaw/Arcadis.

Client: Prorail/City of Amsterdam.

This transport project uses gaps between tracks to make “lofty and enjoyable” public spaces, according to judges, who described the scheme’s size as “heroic”.

Manchester Civil Justice Centre

Architects: Denton Corker Marshall.

Client: Allied London.

The largest court building to be built in the UK since the Royal Courts of Justice in central London, the centre “has made a significant contribution to the regeneration of this part of Manchester”, Stirling judges said.

Nordpark Cable Railway, between Innsbruck and Hungerburg, Austria

Architects: Zaha Hadid with Patrik Schumacher.

Client: Nordpark.

A new railway line designed to help tourists access high slopes and connect villagers to the city. Judges described the curved glass canopies as “sensuous” and “an achievement of great virtuosity”.

Royal Festival Hall, London

Architects: Allies and Morrison.

Client: Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre.

The restoration added a new office building to free up space in the original hall, a move judges called “the masterstroke at the root of the transformation”.

Westminster Academy at the Naim Dangoor Centre, London

Architects: Allford Hall Monaghan Morris.

Client: Westminster Academy/Westminster City Council.

School praised for long aluminium panels in deepening shades of green, producing a building “of very singular identity that suggests a commercial rather than institutional user”.

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