From the moment its doors reopened in February this year, Whitworth Art Gallery has been shooting for the stars. From being declared Museum of the Year by the Art Fund to winning the RIBA National Award, the Whitworth is claiming the title of the most innovative addition to the Mancunian landscape in 2015. But the game of thrones is not over yet. There is one more step that the Whitworth has to scale on the ladder of success in order to reach the top: being crowned the winner of the famous Stirling Prize, the UK’s most meticulously judged award for architectural excellence, which will be announced on 15 October.

Greater Manchester is no stranger to this national contest. The first ever Stirling Prize was won by the Centenary Building in Salford and over the years this area has had more chances to win the award, as well-known buildings like the Imperial War Museum and the Civil Justice Centre were nominated, but ultimately unable to bring the title home. Last year, Manchester had another shot at the prize as Manchester School of Art, designed by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, was shortlisted. Unfortunately, it lost in favour of Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre, a building which, according to the jury, will “age gracefully, continually enriched by the patima of daily use”.

Given the size of this competition, we already know that the road to victory is not going to be smooth. As much as we appreciate and have faith in our local landmark, it would not be wise to underestimate its opponents’ potential. Only the best of the best manage to make the cut, and this year is no exception.

England’s capital city is well represented this year with four RIBA London Award winners competing against each other, starting with Burntwood School. Created by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, the school is a perfect example of how far, architecturally speaking, contemporary educational institutions have come. It broke the tradition of classic brick-made British schools and introduced concrete, which brings back the elegance of the modernist era. Reminiscent of the Armstrong Rubber Company Headquarters’ façades, created by Marcel Breuer, this new, finely-detailed concrete building conveys a sense of openness and determination while representing living proof that education architecture can be both serious and fun at the same time.

But Burntwood School is not the only educational institution considered for the illustrious prize. The University of Greenwich, by Heneghan Peng Architects, has also entered the race in a bid to demonstrate that it is the most innovative British school of architecture of 2015. The building provides quality educational spaces with considerable ceiling heights for better lighting and ventilation, whilst also boasting exceptional acoustics and spacious terraces meant to be used by landscape students. However, the university has no intention of being exclusivist, as the gallery, shop and café are open to the public.

The next nominee on the list is Darbishire Place, a 13-flat housing block created by Niall McLaughlin Architects. Unlike the buildings presented above, this housing project sticks to traditional beige brick in order to complement its surroundings rather than stand out from the crowd, but it also has its own character, enhanced by spatial arrangement and its magnificent multi-flight staircase. It’s not an ordinary housing project, but instead an example of how important it is for the architect to have an understanding of who is going to use their creation and to what end their constant involvement into the construction process can lead.

The fourth London building competing this year is Neo Bankside by Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, which is another representative of the residential sector. If Darbishire Place wanted to infuse a dash of modernism through its geometry and organisational strategy, its opponent aims for a completely different image. Its structurally striking architecture, long curtain walls, external lifts and rich gardens, create a high-quality contemporary project which seems to be here to make a statement – to prove that it is the most spectacular of them all.

But enough about London’s elite. Let’s not forget about the last nominee, which is placed in a colder, Nordic land. The 2015 RIBA Award for Scotland winner, Maggie’s Lanarkshire, designed by Reiach and Hall Architects, represents Scotland this year and even though you might think it’s a residential house, given its warm and friendly atmosphere, it is actually a specialist health centre. The centre is a low-lying building surrounded by nature, where the soothing sound of running water and leaves rustling in the wind, together with the surrounding perforated pale-honey brick wall and intimate spaces immersed in warm light, create a sense of tranquillity and safety.

Looking at the other candidates, it’s safe to say that a victory for the Whitworth isn’t a foregone conclusion. When more buildings are innovating with sustainable designs, inventive palettes of materials, asymmetrically arranged landscapes and abstract geometry, does the Whitworth have what it takes to win the prestigious title for its city? We’ll just have to wait and see.

Photo by YGR Erskine.

Laura Pascale