Sainsbury Laboratory wins 2012 RIBA Stirling Prize

The Sainsbury Laboratory Cambridge University, an independent plant science research institute situated at the heart of the Botanic Garden, confounds the predictions of culture pundits to win the Stirling Prize, the highest accolade in UK architecture.
View through into a laboratory in the Sainsbury Lab, in use by Sutton Trust summer school students.View through into a laboratory in the Sainsbury Lab, in use by Sutton Trust summer school students.
The Sainsbury Laboratory Cambridge University was announced the winner at a ceremony in Manchester on Saturday night and earns its London-based architects, Stanton Williams, a £20,000 prize. The Laboratory, which was opened by the Queen in April 2011 fought off competition from five finalists including the London Olympic Stadium, the Hepworth, Wakefield gallery and Belfast’s Lyric Theatre. It means that the Botanic Garden is now a 40 acre green oasis bordered both north and south by RIBA Stirling Prize winners - the Accordia project to the south of the Garden was the first residential development to win the prestigious prize in 2008.

Lord Sainsbury, whose charity The Gatsby Charitable Foundation made the £82 million gift to the University for the Laboratory’s establishment, said: “I am delighted that Stanton Williams has won the RIBA Stirling Prize for the Sainsbury Laboratory, in competition with some outstanding buildings. I am also very proud to be associated with their inspiring building which sets a new standard for laboratory design and blends in beautifully with the historic Botanic Garden.”

The Sainsbury Laboratory houses world-class plant science research laboratories and meeting spaces through which runs a ‘thinking path’ inspired by that created by Charles Darwin at his hone at Down House, Kent. The revolutionary Cambridge scientist, student of the Botanic Garden’s founder, Professor John Stevens Henslow, daily paced his ‘thinking path’ for inspiration. The Sainsbury Laboratory has also provided an environmentally-controlled new home for the University’s Herbarium, a resource of the Department of Plant Sciences, which contains over one million pressed and preserved plant specimens, included the great majority of those sent back by the young Charles Darwin during his voyage on HMS Beagle (1831-1836) to his mentor, Henslow.

The RIBA Stirling Prize judges said: “In this project Stanton Williams and their landscape architects [Bradley-Hole Schoenaich Architects Ltd] have created a new landscape, a courtyard which flows out into the Botanic Garden. The project is both highly particular and specialised, and at the same time a universal building type, taken to an extraordinary degree of sophistication and beauty. The project seems simple, and this hides the fact that it was a hugely difficult building to achieve. It needed to provide flexibility for future changes in scientific practice, and it has achieved this brilliantly.’

The process of construction was like an enormously complex n-puzzle requiring the removal and replacement of significant Garden facilities including the reserve glasshouse collections, machinery barns, potting sheds and the Gilmour Building, which housed the Garden’s café and meeting space. The Gilmour Building is remembered in the Gilmour Suite of the Sainsbury Laboratory, which now houses the elegant Garden Café. Its beautiful outdoor terrace is enclosed by a new, vibrant herbaceous planting designed by BHLSA Ltd, and is proving popular with the Garden’s 200,000 annual visitors.

The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) Stirling Prize is given to the building judged to have done the most in the last year for the development of architecture. Buildings have to be within the European Union and conceived by architects headquartered in Britain. The Sainsbury Laboratory is not open to the general public although occasional public tours are organised. The Botanic Garden opens daily at 10am.
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