Kingston University London’s Town House by Grafton Architects has won the 25th annual RIBA Stirling Prize

Described as “a progressive model for the design of higher education buildings”, the Town House – a library, event space and dance studios at Kingston University London – has been named as the winner of the Royal Institute of British Architects’ (RIBA) prestigious Stirling Prize.

RIBA Stirling Prize
©Dennis Gilbert

The Town House was chosen by a jury from shortlisted projects that also included: Cambridge Central Mosque by Marks Barfield Architects; 15 Clerkenwell Close in London by Groupwork; Key Worker Housing in Eddington, Cambridge by Stanton Williams; Tintagel Castle Footbridge for English Heritage in Cornwall by Ney & Partners and William Matthews Associates; and Windermere Jetty Museum in Cumbria by Carmody Groarke.

The jury, chaired by Lord Norman Foster, comprised: RIBA president Simon Allford; architect and 2019 RIBA Stirling Prize winner Annalie Riches; and artist Dame Phyllida Barlow. The jury was advised by architect and sustainability expert Mina Hasman.

The shortlisted designs were judged on criteria including: design vision; innovation and originality; capacity to “stimulate, engage and delight” occupants and visitors; accessibility and sustainability; how fit the building is for its purpose; and the level of client satisfaction.

The Town House

Developed by Dublin-based Grafton Architects, in its first UK project, with main contractor Willmott Dixon, the 9,100 sq m Town House is intended as a place where reading, lectures, exhibitions and research co-exist with dance and performance under one roof, open to everyone, creating a “juxtaposition of contemplative and active performative activities” that “offer an imaginative approach to education as process of engagement and discovery”.

RIBA praised the building’s “purposefully democratic and open space” that sends an important message to students, educators and the local community that it is a place where everyone is welcome and valued.

Set back from the street, the project extends the public realm and blurs the boundary with the pavement, “inviting” everyone in.

RIBA Stirling Prize
©Alice Clancy

A 200m-long, six-storey colonnade offers shelter, with terraces and gardens above providing public space.

The facades are open and transparent at lower levels, allowing passers-by to view the activities taking place inside, and become more shaded at upper levels.

Open and spacious inside, users and visitors are greeted by a public forum leading to an amphitheatre, with voids and staircases leading the eyes upward to social and study spaces.

The judges praised the “exemplary” acoustic design that allows this bustling public forum to sit alongside the quiet library, archive, dance studio and theatre.

People, light and air flow naturally through the building, which also uses a thermally activated concrete frame to reduce operational energy use.

Lord Norman Foster, chair of the 2021 RIBA Stirling Prize jury, said: “Kingston University 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.

“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.”

Professor Steven Spier, vice-chancellor of Kingston University, said: “We had an incredibly ambitious brief – to create a space for students that would allow them to benefit from knowing each other, a library to inspire learning, dance studios and a softening of the threshold between gown and town. Grafton Architects delivered just such an innovative programme. The result is a breathtaking new building for Kingston University.

“The Stirling Prize confirms Town House as a world-class building and, therefore, 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.

“Working with an architecture practice of Grafton Architects’ 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.”

Sean Woulfe, the university’s director of estates and sustainability, said the Town House has transformed the image of the university within Kingston and become a catalyst for changing the way it does things.

“Designing a statement building that manages to properly acknowledge its context without pastiche was very important to us. Grafton Architects’ selection of reconstituted stone for Town House’s colonnade acknowledges the Grade II listed Surrey County Hall building opposite, without compromising the contemporary expression of this new building,” he added.

“The university’s sustainability commitments have been another key consideration. The colonnade provides solar shading, cooling the building and reducing energy consumption, with other features including a photovoltaic array, a large sustainable urban draining system, two roof gardens and landscaping designed to support increased biodiversity.

“The building was brought to life by Willmott Dixon Construction, with its design features enhanced by excellent construction quality, particularly the fairfaced blockwork, the ground floor polished concrete slab, together with the oak flooring and stair-treads and plywood panelling, which provide visual warmth.

“The contractor delivered on Grafton Architects’ vision, understanding the importance of ensuring the quality of the finish across all aspects of the building met the highest expectations.”

Grafton Architects said: “We imagined a place where students would feel at home. This building is about people, interaction, light, possibilities. 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. We are absolutely delighted the Kingston Town House has won the prestigious Stirling Prize.”

RIBA stirling prize
© Ed Reeve


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