What a prize mess: The Stirling Prize

The most prestigious award in British architecture is being presented tonight. It's just a shame that the buildings are so awful

The Stirling Prize, British architecture's equivalent of the Booker, will be announced at a televised beano at London's old Billingsgate fish market tonight. The arcaded halls will hum with febrile expectation. But of what? Is this British architecture at the cutting edge, or trapped in a carefully stage-managed and institutionalised view of good design in the 21st century?

There are six buildings in the running: the Fuglsang Kunstmuseum, Denmark, by Tony Fretton Architects; Maggie's Centre, London, and the Bodegas Protos winery in Spain, both by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners; the Liverpool One Masterplan by BDP; 5 Aldermanbury Square, London, by Eric Parry Architects; and Kentish Town Health Centre, London, by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris.

The Booker distils internationally outstanding fiction into a shortlist through a lengthy and rigorous critical process. By comparison, the Stirling's shortlist, though not bare of fine architecture, seems largely an exercise in constrained worthiness, tainted this year by pathetically huffy charges of manipulation concerning the judging panel. The Prince of Wales, accused of similar interference over the Chelsea Barracks development, must be dunking his Duchy Highland All Butter Shortbread into the steaming Assam with unusual pleasure.

The Stirling Prize, first awarded in 1996, has lost its potency. Its shortlists have become decent, rather than battle cries for buildings whose relationships between people and places are genuinely exploratory. Where is the architectural joy – or risk? Where is the buzz that proclaims that British architects are seriously challenging the zeitgeists and physiques of our towns and cities?

The Stirling is awarded to "the building which has made the greatest contribution to British architecture in the past year". But if you asked 50 of Britain's most talented younger architects which buildings these were, most would surely cite projects, and architects, from other parts of the world as their inspirations. The Stirling Prize shortlist has rarely, for example, contained a building of such urban, spatial and material brilliance as the Kolumba Kunstmuseum in Cologne by Peter Zumthor. The Swiss designer is a hero to many of Britain's most thoughtful young architects, but the only architects on the 2009 Stirling shortlist who have comparable status in this respect are Eric Parry and Tony Fretton. They are architectural explorers. They take risks.

Parry's ability to untangle the complexity of historic sites and urban situations and layer 21st-century presence into them with artistry and subtly surreal provocation is unmatched in Britain. On a horribly herniated site in the City, Parry's Aldermanbury Square building may be an office tower, but it's richly engaging. Fretton, a burly and taciturn ex-performance artist, has become legendary for pared-down surfaces and details that create strangely tense confrontations between people and spaces: his interiors might almost be stage sets from a existential crisis filmed by Ingmar Bergman. It takes a brave architect to strip away comforting details and set up scenes that question the very meanings of space, surface and physical narrative – a compelling subject in a world dominated by controlled "public" realms, surveillance, and branding.

No major architectural risks are taken in the other projects in the Stirling Prize shortlist. The Liverpool One regeneration scheme may be great news for comfortably off shoppers from Cheshire and the Wirral, but why celebrate architecture that promotes nomadic wandering in our urban habitats, from one mirage of special offers to the next, soundtracked by the deadly bat-wing whirr of ATM machines?

Rogers Stirk Harbour's Protos winery in Spain, and their Maggie's Centre, a support unit for cancer patients at Charing Cross Hospital, London, are highly accomplished modernist buildings. But the extraordinary structural virtuosity of the winery almost belongs in a vast display case; and despite the calm elegance of its spatial connections, the Maggie's Centre has the unmistakable ambience of an architect's dream home in Fulham Palace Road.

Kieran Long, the editor of The Architect's Journal, skewered these two projects, describing them "as a vote of confidence in poor, beleaguered millionaire Richard Rogers, after being beaten up by Prince Charles in recent months". This predictably choleric barb obscures the key issue, and he's closer to the mark when he says that the Stirling Prize shortlist has "everything to do with the jury being given a bit of everything".

And in the "bit of everything" stakes, the Kentish Town Health Centre, designed by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris is the exemplar. AHMM have become one of the most shrewdly positioned operators among Britain's younger practices. They perfectly suit clients who want creative-looking buildings by personable architects who aren't suddenly going to start quoting Heidegger, or wondering if a building could embody William Blake's vision of the reunion of the body and the soul.

The Kentish Town Health Centre is a controlled exercise in voids, cross-connections, and internal natural light. Yet it's hard to see how this building is a markedly more ambitious contextual achievement than, say, the practice's Jubilee Primary School in a deprived Lambeth neighbourhood. That design got nowhere near the Stirling shortlist in 2003.

Great architecture is not about political correctness, or architectural positioning. It's about creating new kinds of engagement with people and places: genuine architectural experiments that may or may not succeed, yet have the potential to produce buildings and re-energised settings that thoroughly question the way we live – and whether we think architecture does, or doesn't, play a meaningful part in our lives.

The RIBA should ask the last six winners of the Young Architect of the Year competition to pick the 2010 Stirling Prize shortlist. There would almost certainly be a punch-up in the jury room, but it wouldn't be about the shoring up of established mindsets. The body and the soul of British architecture needs something of William Blake's visionary fire, after all, though it will not burn bright in the fearful symmetries of Billingsgate tonight.

The award ceremony will be shown on Channel 4 at 8pm tonight

Arts and Entertainment
Just folk: The Unthanks

music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne with his Screen Actors Guild award for Best Actor

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rowan Atkinson is bringing out Mr Bean for Comic Relief

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project