Architecture: A beauty contest with heart and soul

The Stirling Prize, awarded by the Riba, is being given not for monumental architecture but for thoughtful design and social contribution. The shortlisted work shown below demonstrates this sensitivity to function and context, while Nonie Niesewand nominates her favourite
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The Independent Culture
To popularise architecture for Architecture Week - which runs until Sunday - architects around Britain are giving home-owners the chance to receive expert advice for a pounds 10 consultation fee (which will go to the charity Shelter). Normally, architects won't deliver a blueprint without at least pounds 1,000 upfront - and then with the right to design cupboards too narrow for your coat-hangers.

Chris Smith, the Culture Secretary, believes that the pounds 10 consultancy initiative is the high point of the 300 events planned nationwide to celebrate Architecture Week. He says: "Sitting around the table and discovering the potential of a space with architects - who are the sort of people home-owners may previously have thought were imperious, stuffy, snooty and middle class - brings architecture alive."

The minister could give himself a real headache working out why these radical, unstuffy, down-to-earth architects are not designing public housing - or hospitals that appeal to patients. Either British architects these days don't have much of a social conscience, or the clients are not putting their money where their mouth is.

The Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba), which devises a shortlist for the Stirling Prize from its own awards in architecture, was unable to find a prizewinner for the categories of housing or health this year. At least education got into the league tables, with the timber-clad Ranelagh multi-denominational school in Dublin by the architects Sheila O'Donnell and John Tuomey, both of whom have children at the school. They will be slugging it out for the annual Stirling Prize, held in honour of the late James Stirling, one of Britain's most eminent architects.

The prize is worth pounds 20,000 and is considered to be the most highly respected award for architects based in Britain. O'Donnell and Tuomey will be up against Michael Wilford & Partners for the Sto AG office block in Stuhlingen, Germany, and two contenders in the Arts & Leisure category: Future System's Natwest Media Centre at Lord's in London and David Chipperfield's River and Rowing Museum, at Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire.

Both buildings illustrate the way that the conventional English summer season of cricket fixtures and regattas on hallowed sites has launched some of the best examples of modern buildings this century. No surprises that the winner of the Conservation category award is Norman Foster's Reichstag, which houses the German parliament in Berlin - a bagel of a building that opens up the stuffy 19th-century blockbuster with a glass cupola. Two Jubilee Line Extension stations made it on to the shortlist before all 11 stations are open: the North Greenwich Jubilee line Underground station by Alsop, Lyall & Stormer with the Jubilee Line Extension Project Team, and Chris Wilkinson for Stratford regional station.

The judges have also shortlisted the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, by Gordon Benson and Alan Forsyth, which did not win a category award.

Architecture Week is going online for the first time, which means that all eight buildings shortlisted for the pounds 20,000 Stirling Prize can be viewed and voted for before the winner is announced in Glasgow on 19 November. Until that date you can vote for the People's Choice award by visiting the website at www.ribaawards.co.uk.

Before casting your vote with the judges, who include the fashion designer Stella McCartney and last year's Stirling Prize runner-up, Rick Mather, you should know that the criterion for the prize is changing. It is usually awarded to the building that makes "the greatest contribution to architecture in the year", but Riba's advisers Sunand Prasand and Stephen Hodder have hinted at a change of direction.

It is now considered that attitude and the intent expressed in a building are as important as the greatest, the biggest and the best. Thus a housing block thoughtfully designed to make life more pleasant for the elderly, or a surgery that is upbeat, well lit and functional, can make a significant contribution. The worth of a project should be judged on its contribution to regeneration, conservation or sustainability - issues that are often overlooked in the beauty contest between buildings.

Four years ago, Riba category awards made it easy to understand buildings by type - the best office, the best house, etc. Under these criteria, the strongest contender to win the Stirling Prize is David Chipperfield, for a thoroughly modern museum in a whimsical, waterfront location.

The 43-year-old architect, who is better known abroad than at home, recently beat Frank Gehry, who designed the Guggenheim at Bilbao, to design the pounds 100m Neues museum in Berlin.

Chipperfield's pounds 17.5m River and Rowing Museum failed to pick up any lottery funding, but slipped past the finishing line on to the riverfront at Henley. After taking on combative planning authorities and local residents fearful of "Hitler's bunker", Chipperfield has made a landmark for the next 200 years that takes the vernacular of a boathouse and turns it on its head.

Two windowless galleries with pitched roofs like upturned boats float above a glass ground floor. Boat-shaped, vaulted galleries, turned upside- down so that the hull-high overhead is bathed in a narrow seam of light, run the length of the building, one 62m long, the other 50m. The timber- clad sheds sit side by side, linked with a glass bridge 4m off the ground. A third casket houses Henley memorabilia.

Inside, the watertight museum has a transparency and fluidity that are strong enough to take what the judges have referred to as "clumsy" partitioning by Land Exhibition designers. This powerful new museum takes the strands of the site, its history, and clients' needs, and weaves them into a monumental building.

ART AND LEISURE - THE RIVER AND ROWING MUSEUM AT HENLEY-ON-THAMES

Architect: David Chipperfield Architects.

Contract Value: pounds 6m.

For: A finely honed, thoroughly modern building like an upturned boat, slips easily into a vernacular boatshed architecture in a riverside setting straight from Wind in the Willows. Inside, it is as fluid and luminous as the Thames it wades into on concrete pilotis. An oxbow in the river is the template for door handles.

Flaws: It won a Riba award last year but was not considered for a category because it could not open while Land Exhibition set up stall inside.

COMMERCIAL

STO AG MARKETING HQ STUHLINGEN, GERMANY

Architects: Michael Wilford & Partners.

Contract Value: pounds 5m.

For: Forget good taste with in yer face Sto's bright yellow logo running all along the rooftops in this Swiss border town "in a way that could never happen in the UK", say the judges. This lack of reticence in a cute Alpine setting could have been "appalling in a less good building", but Michael Wilford, never one to hide his light, has handled such exuberance with confidence.

Flaws: Michael Wilford won the Stirling Prize in 1997 and as he was James Stirling's partner for years, it was seen as a bit of an own goal even then. It is unlikely that he will win again.

EDUCATION

RANELAGH MULTIDENOMINATIONAL SCHOOL, DUBLIN

Architects: O'Donnell and Tuomey.

Contract Value: pounds 132,000.

For: "A cool school," according to the pupils. The judges like the way that it sensitively slots into an urban school cluster, letting the ridgeline of an adjacent tin church limit its height.

Materials make it unobtrusive, the roof profiled in terne-coated steel weathered to look like lead, with timber-clad walls, reclaimed brick and an entry porch faced with stone from an old boundary wall.

Flaws: Unfair one, this, but it photographs badly. The judges said: "We were shocked by how good this project was - it's not easily photographed even by a top architectural photographer."

CONSERVATION

THE NEW GERMAN PARLIAMENT, BERLIN

Architects: Foster & Partners.

Contract Value: pounds 265m.

For: Stormin' Norman at his best. The first major public building powered by renewable resources, sunflower or rape seed oil. Known as "the big bagel" with a glass beehive viewing platform on top beaming light down to the debating chamber. A major slice of German history celebrates a more enlightened future without forgetting the past.

Flaws: Will the architectural equivalent of the Booker be won by the same architect two years' running? JM Coetzee won the Booker twice but there was a big interval in between. Foster's American Air Museum at Duxford won last year's prize.

CIVIC AND COMMUNITY

STRATFORD REGIONAL STATION, LONDON

Architect: Chris Wilkinson.

Contract Value: pounds 17m.

For: A highly visible and handsome focal point for the regeneration of the Borough of Newham in London. The station shimmers with a white light rather than a sulphuric glow. Its cantilevered curved shell steel supports the rectangular glass station.

Flaws: The station serves to remind commuters of the inequality of different train operators. To catch the DLR or Silverlink trains, commuters must cross the new station with its gleaming London Underground concourses to end up without shelter on broken Victorian platforms.

ART AND LEISURE

NATWEST MEDIA CENTRE LORD'S CRICKET GROUND, LONDON

Architect: Future Systems.

Contract Value: pounds 5m.

For: The architects really pushed the boat out for this world first, an aluminium building prefabricated in a boat yard. The world's first semi-monocoque building is made like a ship's hull, its aluminium skin welded on to ribs and spars. It introduces airplane and ship-building technology to the construction industry.

Flaws: Its champion, Brian Thornton, resigned from the MCC when it came in late at nearly double the price. But it was worth it, Thornton said, for a building that is an international icon.

CIVIC AND COMMUNITY

NORTH GREENWICH JUBILEE LINE UNDERGROUND STATION, LONDON

Architect: Alsop, Lyall & Stormer with Jubilee Line Extension project team.

Contract Value: pounds 110m.

For: Probably the winner, not least because Norman Foster and Will Alsop were in a hostile jump-off to design the GLA building with different developers and Norman Foster won. The huge concrete concourse, the biggest in Europe, supports jaunty blue-tiled columns beneath a silver bellied roof.

Flaws: Too soon to give the Stirling Prize for a JLE station. There are 11 architecturally designed stations, and they must all be open before one is singled out.

ALSO SHORTLISTED

THE MUSEUM OF SCOTLAND, EDINBURGH

Architect: Gordon Benson and Alan Forsyth.

Contract Value: pounds 45m.

For: Edinburgh's new stronghold has a strong urban impact. A rectangular exhibition block, the cylindrical tower, and the curved cantilevered roof terrace are given an urban nitty-gritty texture. The tower, hinging north and west facades, is a beacon above the convergence of five routes into the city. Lord Rothschild, a judge for the Pritzker Prize for architecture, calls it "one of the great, great projects of the last decade".

Flaws: Practically all the old-guard architects resent Benson and Forsyth's scorn of hi-tech architecture.

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