25 Jul, 2009

Stirling prize leaves me feeling cold

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

Low-key, meditative buildings dominate on a shortlist responding to the economic hangover, but how can a rural arts museum be judged against a city office block?

The Stirling prize shortlist announced by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) yesterday is, serendipitously, an appropriate one for a recession. Here is an exquisite Spanish winery by Rogers, Stirk and Harbour, a place where booze flows by the mega-litre, as if ready to drown pains induced by economic woe.

Over there, a light and airy London health centre by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris (AHMM) – as fine a place as any the NHS can offer to recover from depression, anxiety and alcohol-related illness. There’s also Maggie’s Centre, a beautifully-designed hospice in London, also by Rogers Stirk Harbour, and the calm and refined Fuglsang Kunstmuseum, a meditative arts building by Tony Fretton on a country estate overlooking the sea on the Danish island of Lolland . There are chaste, almost monastic, rooms here for visitors. Anyone suffering from the excesses of the economic culture that led to the current recession might like to cool off and reflect about life with Fretton’s calm architecture as a gentle prop.

As for the other two Stirling prize contenders, these seem to represent the very economic culture that has caused so much pain: a City of London office block and an enormous shopping centre. Admittedly, the office block – 5 Aldermanbury Square – by Eric Parry Architects is particularly elegant, but it’s still essentially a design for bankers and their chums, while the giant shopping mall, Liverpool One by BDP, is banality writ as large as any typeface can be stretched.

This year might also be seen as a recession shortlist because the buildings on it are decidedly low-key compared to the designs that have been nominated for – and won – the Stirling prize in earlier years. The Lords Media Centre, 30 St Mary Axe — aka the Gherkin – the Scottish parliament building and Barajas airport’s Terminal 4 all share a flamboyant charisma, out of step with current nominees.

Low-key doesn’t mean lesser architecture, though. Far from it. This year’s favourites, Fretton’s Danish museum (3-1) and Rogers’s Maggie’s Centre (4-1), are gems rather than bangles, while AHMM’s Kentish Town health centre shows how well a tight public sector budget can be spent.

And yet, prizes like this have always left me a feeling a little detached, and even cold. I’m not sure what they prove, nor how anyone can judge a city office block in the same category as a rural arts museum or, indeed, a tightly-budgeted health centre. The Stirling prize is, I suppose, knockabout fun, but many architects do appear to take it very seriously. If the award was purely for architecture, then this year’s winner ought to be Tony Fretton’s Fuglsang Museum; if, however, the prize is to be political, then perhaps AHMM’s health centre would make a telling winner – a sign of what decent modern architecture can do for the beleaguered NHS.

If RIBA and its judges want to stick two fingers up to the Prince of Wales and all his interfering ways, then they have two Richard Rogers’ buildings to choose from this year, in the cancer hospice and winery. As for the inclusion of Liverpool One, I can only imagine this must be some kind of drunken joke. It’s a scheme that has made this once hugely distinctive city look much like anywhere else; the fact that it opened in the city’s year as European Capital of Culture was as close to satire as architecture gets. And, yet, as Johnny Rotten once bawled: “your future dream’s a shopping scheme“. The British public, it seems, will still drink to that.

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