Revenge of the carbuncle

It's headline news. Modern British architecture is good again and the Stirling Prize represents the best of the best. But do these temples of glass and steel really represent a renaissance?
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So you like modern architecture do you? Well that's a turn up for the books. It seems like only yesterday that Prince Charles condemned all fresh ideas in design to the dustbin when he called the proposals for the National Gallery extension "a monstrous carbuncle" and a deferential nation nodded in agreement. The echo has been long (16 years to be precise) and a country littered with fancy-dress buildings in pseudo-historical styles is a direct result.

So you like modern architecture do you? Well that's a turn up for the books. It seems like only yesterday that Prince Charles condemned all fresh ideas in design to the dustbin when he called the proposals for the National Gallery extension "a monstrous carbuncle" and a deferential nation nodded in agreement. The echo has been long (16 years to be precise) and a country littered with fancy-dress buildings in pseudo-historical styles is a direct result.

But now - fickle people that we are - we have changed our minds. And that's official. Last week, newspapers were full of articles celebrating the renaissance in modern architecture in the run up to the judging of the Stirling Prize, the award made by the Royal Institute of British Architects and Channel 4 for the building of the year (the winner was be formally announced on Sunday evening in a one-off television programme, complete with a pre-recorded address by the Prime Minister). The seven shortlisted projects, shown here, have been widely pictured as evidence that we are living in a rejuvenated country - with buildings to match.

The reality of course is quite different. These seven wonders of Blair's Britain - impressive though most of them are - draw as much on existing traditions as many of the historicist buildings they seek to usurp. There's nothing bad about that - all creative disciplines, from music and art to theatre and film, make reference to the past - but we would be kidding ourselves if we thought we were being daring. All we are doing is reconnecting with ideas which had been left behind in the post-modern maelstrom and catching up with developments in design which many other countries have been pursuing for decades.

So nobody should be shocked by new British architecture (though they will be of course, just as they are by its art). Even Norman Foster himself declared on a recent TV documentary that his design for Canary Wharf underground station was "like rediscovering the tradition" of epic architecture for transport infrastructure. True, the scale of the concrete interior is breathtaking and the curvy glazed entrance hoods are very seductive, but the Modernist architectural principles to which it conforms are nearly 100 years old.

The same can be said of Richard Rogers' shortlisted office building in the City of London. This draws on the theories expounded by avant-garde architects in the 1920s (and Victorian engineers before them) that undecorated mass-produced elements can be used to make functional and economic buildings. The beauty and pleasure, the thinking goes, is in the shaping of space and quality of light. Buildings by Foster and Rogers (both now in their sixties) are good in the way that art by Bridget Riley is good, or music by David Bowie - we know what they do and we respect them for it. But we don't expect to be surprised.

The London Eye - another great exemplar of new Britain - is also paradoxically retro. The structure uses modern technology, but the form and idea stretch back over a century. "A marvel of Flash Gordon technology," enthused Waldemar Januszczak, presenter of a TV programme on the Stirling Prize, as if to confirm the point.

Innovation in materials and form is not everything in architecture - an idea well executed is just as important. But there is evidence of discontent at all the claims for originality in projects like these. "Methods of construction have changed little in thousands of years," says Neil Spiller, a tutor at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London. "As designers there is much to be gained from accepting and exploiting all advances in technologies whether virtual, visceral, vital or viral ... Recent successes in tissue engineering suggest the potential of bone as a new structural material."

But while we await such developments, the imaginative reinterpretation of existing forms is still what provides the interest in new buildings. Some architects even argue that this is what makes them challenging. "The condition of perpetual novelty undermines cultural continuity," claims Adam Caruso, one of the architects of the New Art Gallery in Walsall, West Midlands, a building hotly tipped in the Stirling Prize competition. Rather than fall for what he calls "the tyranny of the new", Caruso and his partner Peter St John consider a more radical strategy to be "one that considers and re-presents the existing and the known."

This approach - akin to contemporary dancers reworking classical repertoire or Benjamin Britten drawing on Purcell - is exemplified by the Walsall gallery. The strikingly plain building rises up over the Midlands town like a castle keep, its cladding in terracotta panels - a material used in the area for centuries. And yet because the thinking behind the building is intellectual and rigorous rather than purely populist, it is the most controversial new project for architects and public alike. Inside it is rich in the complexity of its plan and section (the architects have likened it to a Jacobean house), but almost everybody who goes there expresses delight in what they find.

The success of Walsall is particularly satisfying for architects of a certain persuasion since it is so uncompromising in its brutality, marking a return to the aesthetics of public buildings like the National Theatre - a style much reviled by those of the Prince of Wales school of taste.

Walsall's direct opposite in terms of theoretical stance is the new library at Peckham, South London, by Will Alsop. This is a building which represents a long standing pop tendency in British architecture. It is brightly coloured and gangly and fun. If Caruso St John's work is the Radiohead of building design then this is Spice Girls stuff. But pluralism is what Britain does best. What's more, of all the buildings shortlisted for the Stirling Prize, Peckham library is closest to the wildest expressions of this country's 3,500 students of architecture - even if it is designed by a man in his fifties.

With all these promising new buildings around people might be tempted to feel smug (particularly those in government) that this design renaissance is real and lasting. But there is a long way to go before we can take good modern architecture for granted. In Britain, you could apply for planning permission with a sketch on the back of a fag packet and, according to the RIBA, less than 20 per cent of work submitted for planning approval in Greater Manchester last year was designed by architects. This trend is reflected throughout the country. By contrast, any application for work above 60 square metres in France and Spain must be made by an architect.

There is also shocking evidence of the low regard the Government has for architecture in the British pavilion it commissioned for this year's international Expo in Hanover. While almost every other participating nation constructed buildings by their best architects (most notable being the exquisite contributions by the Portuguese and Swiss and a sensational "vertical park" by the Dutch), the British exhibit took the form of what Peter Davey, editor of The Architectural Review, described as "a large, crudely decorated metal shed, which has apparently been hired off the shelf". It is, he says, "one of the worst buildings in the whole show ... a depressing, yet very telling demonstration of the hypocrisy of much of the Blair New Labour project". (Bear this in mind when you see the Prime Minister extol the virtues of good architecture on TV tonight.)

We live in a nation of dilapidated infrastructure (the railways are just one example) and crumbling public realm. With the right funding and direction, architecture can help restore both these things. But wide awareness of its history and potential is crucial to this. Just as with music or literature or film, many of the best works of architecture can be difficult to understand. Dislike of modern buildings often stems from ignorance. It is revealing that the project on the Stirling Prize shortlist which received the most votes from the public - "the people's choice" - is a new Sainsbury's supermarket in Greenwich. It is a very good supermarket (and particularly praiseworthy for its green credentials), but it would be a shame if its shiny happy brand of architecture was held up to the world, like some built equivalent of The Full Monty, as a sign of artistic revival in our culture.

The seven wonders of modern Britain, paraded here and on television tonight, are things to be proud of. But we should be wary of what Frank Duffy, the former President of the RIBA, this week called the "superficial sheen" they cast. In many ways they are just the starting point. And only when good contemporary architecture becomes the norm rather than the exception will the carbuncle's revenge be complete.