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The Stirling Prize: Ten Years of Architecture and Innovation By Tony Chapman.Merrell, 2006. 224pp. £35

Will the years 1996-2005 go down in history as the great period of transformation in British architecture? When we feel ready to decide, Tony Chapman's book will help.

Coming from a media background, he is the hero of the Stirling Prize, after taking over its management from Chris Palmer in year three.

His introduction sketches the background and sets the breezy tone of the fast-moving yearby-year survey, as the prize became more public, fullling the initial ambition to rival Booker and Turner.

The buildings and projects parade through the pages much as they do on TV, with upbeat descriptions and analysis, accompanied by the usual glossy pictures and rather smallscale plans. These mini-essays by Chapman are a model of good communication, neither assuming too much prior knowledge nor talking down.

Each year's crop is reected upon by a different critic, assessing the jury's choice.

As masters of their craft, they do this job well, but real critical thinking would be out of place, as it is on the prize night.

Issues about icon versus non-icon architecture are briey raised, as the prize was bound to favour the strong image in line with the rising graph of its public prole. Even if, as Deyan Sudjic suggests, Jim Stirling's work is currently 'trapped in a critical deep freeze', the use of his name is apt, since his buildings always photographed like fashion models, and image seems to rule the prize unquestioned.

Each year has included one or two projects that have had to struggle with adversity in a hostile world in order to create the kind of everyday decency that has long held a high position in British architectural culture.

The Brighton Library by Bennetts Associates in the 2005 shortlist was a good example.

BedZed, on the 2003 shortlist, was a step beyond, into consideration of the longerterm consequences of building, hinting at qualities deserving a different kind of recognition, but not primarily visual ones.

As Sudjic says: 'The real problem faced by the Stirling Prize? has been its failure to come up with a coherent sense of what the award is for and then to stick to it.' Beyond its usefulness as a record of an idea that ew, the book fails to act as a mirror of architecture in our time without reading between the lines. The way we talk about architecture, especially to those outside its rather enclosed world, is loose and impressionistic. One type of good is balanced against another, with no notion of their relative weight and public opinion, while canvassed, is mostly ignored.

Maybe, as Reyner Banham suggested, architects are like a 'tribe intent on preserving their integrity as a social grouping' and for that reason are committed to retaining the mystery of their black box, even if 'there may be nothing at all inside the black box except a mystery for its own sake'.

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