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EDITORIAL - Popularity should be a separate issue from excellence of design

The two least well-known projects on the Stirling shortlist focus the mind on the question of what the Stirling Prize is all about. Hammersmith Surgery by Guy Greenfield Architects and The Lawns by Eldridge Smerin are particularly welcome additions to the list, in that they are both by new practices and are both projects which a lessenlightened selection panel might not have deemed suitably 'significant'for a potential Stirling winner.

The Lawns - an extravagant reworking of an already expensive house in London's Highgate - is outstanding, but easily dismissed as 'rich man's architecture', and thus irrelevant. But enlightened wealthy clients have been essential to architectural history, financing projects which have acted as test-beds for technologies and ideas which have later been adapted for much wider use. Hammersmith Surgery is surprising in that it is a pioneering building without the slightest hint of worthiness, and astonishing in that it was built within the constraints of the NHS. It is hard to imagine any circumstances in which a surgery could be deemed less important than, say, a building devoted to historic aircraft, or to media coverage of Lord's. And this particular surgery has added importance as a vast public sculpture, offering a much-needed marker in the urban chaos of Hammersmith flyover.

The real concern is not about significance so much as public profile. Visitors flock to Eden, Magna and the National Portrait Gallery, and while entry to Portcullis House is strictly limited, it is an integral part of tourist London, and its Underground station is in constant use.

Hammersmith Surgery serves a limited catchment area, while The Lawns is out of bounds to all but family and friends, making it even less accessible than Wilford's embassy in Berlin. But so what? The Stirling Prize is a reward for excellence, as opposed to prestige or popularity. It is good PR when the winner is a building which the public knows and loves. But it ought to be beside the point. The fact that Hammersmith Surgery and The Lawns are on the shortlist is a reassuring indication that that popularity is still seen as a bonus and not as a necessity.

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