The news that the Stirling Prize for architecture has been awarded to a council estate has been a long time coming. The prize has been awarded annually for the past twenty four years but the 2019 winner, the Goldsmith Street development on the edge of Norwich city centre, is only the second housing scheme to scoop the award and the first to have been publicly commissioned.
That oversight reflects the Stirling’s long-standing prejudice in favour of the spectacular and expensive, reflected all too clearly in the choice of the billion-pound headquarters building of Bloomberg as last year’s winner. However, it is also indicative of the fact that housing of architectural quality has been notably thin on the ground and homes built by local authorities all but non-existent.
Goldsmith Street represents the first new housing that Norwich City Council has commissioned since the 1980 housing act prevented local authorities from reinvesting funds from the sale of council houses into the construction of new homes. Last year, that legislation was finally overturned and given the present scale of our housing crisis – housing charity Shelter reckons that the UK needs to build 3 million social homes over the next twenty years – it was a welcome if long-overdue change.
Designed by architects Mikhail Riches, in collaboration with Cathy Hawley, the 105 flats and houses at Goldsmith Street set a high benchmark of quality for what promises to be a new generation of council housing. Ingeniously reconciling the demand for density with a desire to minimise overshadowing, the scheme comprises a series of closely packed but powerfully modelled brick terraces ranged along attractive, car-free streets.
There is nothing lavish about the project but it is beautifully detailed and carefully designed to minimise tenants’ energy consumption. Perhaps most impressively it feels deeply rooted in the urban grain and materials of historic Norwich while achieving an expression of its own. These may sound like modest achievements but they remain all too rare. The Stirling jury has done well to recognise a project of such radical ordinariness.