RIBA's Stirling Prize: For architecture's biggest gong, small is beautiful in 2013

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

The shortlist for the Stirling Prize is admirable, says Jay Merrick – it’s just a shame that designers of excellent but ordinary buildings are ignored

Every architect in Britain dreams about winning the Stirling Prize, the coveted prize awarded by the Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba). Even Zaha Hadid, the profession’s most charismatic figure, was desperate to win it – and she did, twice. The buildings that win the Stirling Prize are usually biggies, in every sense, and they’ve included 30 St Mary Axe, aka the Gherkin, the MAXXI museum in Rome, and the Scottish Parliament.

Click here to see all six nominees for this year's RIBA Stirling Prize

The six buildings, and architectural practices, on this year’s shortlist are modest by comparison: the Newhall B housing development in Harlow, by Alison Brooks; the renovation of the massive Park Hill apartment block in Sheffield by Hawkins Brown and Studio Egret West; the restoration of Astley Castle in Warwickshire, by Witherford Watson Mann; the Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre in Antrim, by Heneghan Peng; the University of Limerick Medical School, by Grafton Architects; and the Bishop Edward King Chapel in Cuddesdon, Oxfordshire, by Niall McLaughlin.

But is the best, cherry-picked British architecture good enough in a wider sense? Does it have positive ripple-effects on our daily lives, and on the cityscapes and townscapes around us? The buildings on the shortlist are all admirable, but they gloss over the fact that the designs of the vast majority of the hundreds of thousands of buildings that have gone up in Britain in the last decade are architecturally mediocre.

That might be expected. But building design is likely to get worse. Clive Betts, chairman of the Local Government Select Committee, recently told Architects Journal that the new planning guidelines would lead to job cuts in planning departments, and even less control over the design quality of new buildings.

Even the perma-smile on Richard Rogers’ face is beginning to take on a grim, Dorian Gray quality. The grandee who once led the Urban Task Force, now says: “We had a mission, and that has gone. Making money has become much more important... We as architects can do very little about it, but as citizens we have a responsibility.”

Most citizens live in housing that will never get on the Stirling Prize shortlist. Out of the 113 regional and national architecture prizes awarded by Riba this year, only seven concern general housing. Why? Because it’s a sector characterised by take-the-money-and-run design, room sizes that are the smallest in Europe, Britons stampeding to buy £1m worth of air fresheners a day, and an annual construction shortfall of more than 100,000 homes every year.

Even supposedly impressive design often papers over blatant acts of architectural cynicism or exclusion. Consider the gaudy rash of British waterside schemes in the last decade: why do the colourful but architecturally dreary, apartment blocks on Glasgow Harbour Terraces remind me of beached Italian cruise liners? Why does One Hyde Park, the ultimate bastion for the super-rich designed by Lord Rogers’ practice, seem to cast a ram raid-proof shadow over the future form of Britain’s most salubrious neighbourhoods?   

The Stirling Prize and the buildings it honours have little to do with questions like these. Many would argue that outstanding architecture is self-justifying and should not be judged in relation to the grimpen mire of the social, political, and economic issues that affect virtually all of us.

As in most years, the 2013 Stirling Prize shortlist concerns buildings that might loosely be described as posh. Even the Newhall B housing estate in Essex and the revamped 1960s Parkhill housing block in Sheffield are essentially domains for the upwardly mobile. It’s revealing that Britain’s most consistently inventive housing designer, Peter Barber, has never made the shortlist. Could this be due to the fact that he designs social or low-price housing on super-tight budgets, whose finishes are not always perfect?

The Stirling Prize certainly encourages outstanding design. Ultimately, though, it’s “excellent ordinary” buildings we need more of – and there are dozens of established, and young practices that can deliver this goal. These architects seem to actually give a damn about the quality of the built environment in this country. Could it be that planners and developers don’t?

Arts and Entertainment
Emo rockers Fall Out Boy

music

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment

film

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
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
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.

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links