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

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?