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
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
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.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?