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‘It sounded crazy’: palatial six-storey hymn to social interaction is Britain’s best new building

The 2021 RIBA Stirling prize has gone to Kingston University’s free-flowing Town House, a welcoming, transparent, roomy place perfect for students to spark off each other

After more than a year of Zoom tutorials and online lectures, students are back learning face to face – and nowhere more so than at Kingston University’s Town House, a cathedral of social interaction that has been named the UK’s best new building.

A palatial £50m complex, the winner of the 2021 RIBA Stirling prize is a six-storey hymn to one of the main reasons for going to university: meeting other people. It is a place of wide sociable staircases, broad public terraces, and open-plan study areas that look across to dance studios and performance spaces. In its free-flowing generosity, it is the exact opposite of the usual institutional world of siloed academic departments protected by swipecards. Instead, this is a welcoming, transparent place, where even the public is free to roam from top to bottom.

“It is a theatre for life – a warehouse of ideas,” said Lord Norman Foster, speaking on behalf of the Stirling prize jury. “In this highly original work of architecture, quiet reading, loud performance, research and learning can delightfully coexist. That is no mean feat.”

The project is the work of Grafton Architects, the Dublin-based practice founded in 1978 by Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, who have enjoyed a recent string of successes. They won both the Pritzker prize and the RIBA Gold Medal last year – the Stirling now completes the hat-trick of architecture’s highest honours. As usual, the modest duo credit the power of the project to the client’s radical vision.

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