RIBA’s Forgotten Spaces: A competition of clever ideas

Susie Stubbs

RIBA’s annual architecture competition imagines a floating lido, a crayfish farm and an interactive weather tower – in the middle of Preston.

Earlier this year, we highlighted a rather intriguing architecture and design competition run by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). Called Forgotten Spaces, it is a competition that’s about as far removed from Gherkin or Shard-style grandstanding as it’s possible to get. Rather than celebrating big name architects and mega-bucks budgets, it instead asks a simple question: how would you transform abandoned, derelict space?

Open to anyone, this annual competition of ideas (rather than actual architecture) occurs simultaneously in London and one other Northern city. This year’s “other” was Preston and, with a £5,000 prize for the best concept as to how to improve its unloved bits, it attracted 57 entries from architects, designers, graduates, consortia and community groups. Those entries have now been whittled down to a shortlist of 22, with all of them – including one winner and two runners up – going on display in an exhibition in Preston in November.

Rather than raze them, this is all about re-thinking old, unloved and derelict buildings

Entries ranged from the bonkers (a 28-metre tall interactive weather tower, anyone?) to the community focused. There were ideas for a lido that floated over a disused section of canal, gardens atop a car park, hive-like living “pods” for students, and temporary fabric structures woven between buildings and alleyways. There were curious boardwalk-style walkways that hugged the exterior of an underused public building, fighter jets (sort of) and a microbrewery. Most of all, though, there was a surfeit of clever designs that challenged the standard response to decaying buildings: rather than raze them, let’s rethink them.

The whole process has been fascinating – and not solely because we were on the judging panel. Forgotten Spaces asks entrants to be both imaginative and practical. While few (if any) of the ideas submitted may ever make it off the drawing board, those that were shortlisted this year were nevertheless tempered by reality: the most successful were rooted in the community, and promised to deliver much more than the sum of their parts. It may be an ideas-based competition but Forgotten Spaces is also one that is about people and places, and how we use, occasionally abuse and care for our cities.

The shortlist goes on display in, appropriately enough, a disused building in Preston in November: the former Post Office site close to the Harris Museum. Here, you’ll be able to see for yourself all 22 shortlisted entries, and perhaps join the debate about the empty and unloved spaces where you live – and what you can do about them.

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