London Shard vies for top architecture prize

Ivory tower? The Shard is a controversial feature of the London skyline © PA

Love it or loathe it, the tallest building in western Europe has been nominated for the RIBA Stirling Prize, which celebrates the best of British architecture. Is it a worthy contender?

It is, according to one journalist, ‘the most divisive building to have been built in Britain this century.’ The building in question is London’s Shard – the Southwark skyscraper that rockets 72 storeys and 1,016ft into the clouds, making it the tallest building in western Europe.

Despite the furious complaints that accompanied its construction, this week the tower has been shortlisted for one of architecture’s most prestigious awards: the £20,000 RIBA Stirling Prize.

Judges praised the architect Renzo Piano for creating the tower on such a tight site. A public viewing gallery, health clinic, offices, restaurants, a hotel and apartments all exist in this vertical village.

But it faces stiff competition from the other five entries. The sharp, towering angles of The Shard square up against the soft curves of the Olympic Park’s London Aquatics Centre, which has been compared to a swooping grey stingray. Designed by Zaha Hadid, the building was one of the star attractions of the London Olympics. Now open to the public, fans say swimming there is like ‘swimming in a spaceship’.

Among the other six projects vying for the top award are the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool, the Library of Birmingham, the London School of Economics and the Manchester School of Art. Critics have commented that all the designs are bold and brave. None fit subtly into their surroundings.

The Everyman Theatre, for example, is unmissable, partly because the front of the building features 105 portraits of people from Merseyside, whose images have been etched into metal shutters.

The Library of Birmingham, resembling three stacked boxes covered in an intricate aluminium lattice, has been praised by judges for its ‘Harry Potter rotunda’ and ‘Willy Wonka-style glass lift’. It is described as a landmark that has ‘shaken the traditional perception of a library.’ Many are not quite so keen. ‘Teeth-grindingly vulgar’ is how the Telegraph described it.

The sky’s the limit

Not everyone is thrilled that the Shard has been included on the list. It sticks out like a sore thumb from the other entries, they argue, partly because it is the only commercial building shortlisted. Built with a vast amount of foreign money, its luxurious apartments and restaurants will only benefit a select few. This prize should not go to such a standalone, show-off building.

But others disagree. All the entries are judged by the same criteria: their excellence of design, and their significance to the evolution of architecture and the built environment. No building has transformed London and stimulated discussion quite like the Shard. It is an outstanding symbol of modernity and engineering ingenuity.

You Decide

  1. Take a look at the six shortlisted buildings in our expert links. Which one do you think is worthy of the prize?
  2. Does architecture matter? Can it enhance people’s everyday lives?


  1. In groups, design a new building for your local area. Present your ideas to the class, explaining the design, function and location, and what you think it will add to the area.
  2. Choose a building you particularly admire from anywhere in the world. Write a short paragraph describing its history, and what you like about it.

Some People Say...

“Without an architecture of our own we have no soul of our own civilization.Frank Lloyd Wright”

What do you think?

Q & A

I’m not that into art and architecture so how does this affect me?
Architecture is all around us in our built environment and affects us whether we are aware of it or not. New buildings can bring prosperity to an area and public buildings like airport terminals, swimming pools, libraries, train stations and shopping malls can be made more inviting. Bad or just poor architecture can, of course, have the opposite effect. The Stirling Prize is there to encourage the good sort.
What other buildings have won in the past?
Notable past winners include the Scottish Parliament in 2005, Madrid Barajas airport in 2006, the Accordia housing estate in Cambridge in 2008 and the Evelyn Grace Academy in Brixton in 2011. The list is proof that any type of building can become an outstanding example of design.

Word Watch

RIBA Stirling Prize
The prize was founded in 1996 and is widely regarded as the most prestigious architecture award in the United Kingdom – the equivalent of the Booker or Turner Prize . It is awarded annually to the architects of the building that has made the greatest contribution to British architecture in the past year. The building can be anywhere within the European Union.
Zaha Hadid
The Iraqi-British architect was the first woman to receive the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2004. She also won the Stirling Prize in 2010 and 2011.
Foreign money
The building is 95% owned by the government of Qatar.
This month a further three tenants signed leases amounting to over 27,000 sq ft in the Shard, taking the total number of occupants to nine. Price tags for the apartments range between £30m to £50m.

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