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RIBA Stirling Prize 2023: Retirement day centre named UK's best new building

Buildings and spaces for social good have been celebrated in this year's prestigious architecture prize

John Morden Centre

The winner: John Morden Centre by Mae. Image: Jim Stephenson 2021

The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) has been crowning Britain’s best new building through the Stirling Prize since 1996.

The cafe at John Morden Centre
The cafe at John Morden Centre. Image: Jim Stephenson 2021

But looking good isn’t enough to scoop the highest accolade in architecture on its own any more – now buildings and spaces for social good are just as crucial as revolutionary design.

The shift has been underway since 2019 when social housing came out on top for the first time with Mikhail Riches and Norwich City Council’s eco-friendly social homes.

This year’s Stirling Prize winner put the focus on the adult social care crisis. With the challenges of NHS funding, longer life expectancies and a climate crisis to boot, RIBA’s prize recognises that the new frontier for architecture is as much about the people who use the building as external aesthetics.

Urban designers Mæ’s work on the John Morden Centre – a retirement day centre in Blackheath, South-East London – won the 2023 prize after impressing judges with how it integrated medical facilities with recreational spaces to counter isolation and loneliness.

RIBA president Muyiwa Oki, said: “Loneliness and isolation are critical issues, particularly for older people. The John Morden Centre’s elegance and efficacy sets a high standard for spaces that support healthier, happier and more independent lives.

“It illustrates the positive potential of architecture to strengthen vibrant and active communities.”

The John Morden Centre – A new way for the old

John Morden Centre
Copyright Jim Stephenson 2021

The John Morden Centre provides day care for residents of the Morden College retirement community on the same Grade I-listed college grounds featuring an almshouse and chapel attributed to St Paul’s Cathedral architect Sir Christopher Wren. Judges described the centre as a “joy and inspiration” for partnering spaces such as an art room, hair salon and theatre alongside medical care.

The building also earned plaudits for sensitively anticipating the varied needs and abilities of users via concealed handrails and built-in seating on walkways, and high-contrast patterns on floors to help residents with dementia navigate the centre.

The use of “simple and effective” low-carbon techniques, such as cross-laminated timber to form the structure, lime-based mortar to enable future reuse of the brick cladding and passive ventilation through the building’s chimneys to reduce energy output also impressed judges.

Speaking on behalf of the RIBA Stirling Prize jury, Ellen van Loon said:

“It illustrates how buildings can themselves be therapeutic – supporting care and instilling a sense of belonging. Great architecture orients people so they can thrive, and this building is exemplary at achieving exactly that.”

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Stirling Prize 2023: A House For Artists – Home is where the art is

People dancing in a light filled room
A House for Artists. Image: Jimmy Lee

The John Morden Centre was not the only building to secure RIBA silverware. A House for Artists in Barking, East London, came out on top in the Neave Brown Award for Housing 2023 category.

Named in honour of the late social housing pioneer, the annual award recognises the UK’s best new affordable housing. The winning project, co-commissioned by arts organisation Create London and London Borough of Barking & Dagenham with the backing of the Mayor of London, offers a new take on shared living that puts creativity at the heart of housing. A House for Artists offers homes for 12 families with reduced rents for resident artists. In return, they use an exhibition space to deliver free creative programmes for the benefit of the local community.

street view of buildings
Image: Johan Dehlin

Judges were impressed with how the project combatted rising housing costs and used communal entrance porticos and a courtyard to invite households to form social bonds.

Nicholas Lobo Brennan, director of Apparata architects, said: “At a time when the UK appears poised to address its serious and long-standing housing shortages, we have an incredible opportunity, not merely to put roofs over people’s heads, but to create considered, sustainable and efficient homes.”

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