As a member of the Stirling Prize jury, Edward Cullinan sets his sights high.
Ideally, he says, the winning building will be 'profound, popular and, in the broadest sense of the word, spiritual - a work of art like Ronchamp, Mozart's Magic Flute or the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel'. Two years ago, one of Cullinan's own buildings, the Downland Gridshell at the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum in West Sussex, was shortlisted for the Stirling Prize. It finished a close second to Wilkinson Eyre's spectacular Gateshead Millennium Bridge - a worthy winner, says Cullinan, magnanimously, while admitting 'it was thrilling to be shortlisted - and terrible to be pipped at the post'.
He was disappointed when his Cambridge mathematics faculty building failed to reach the 2003 shortlist, although it won many other awards.
Cullinan, who knew James Stirling well, believes that 'Big Jim' would have approved thoroughly of the prize and of the way in which it is used to promote public interest in contemporary architecture. 'I think he would have enjoyed the media hype, not to mention the prize dinner! It's just a little melancholy that he built so little in Britain. The Leicester engineering block is one of the best modern buildings anywhere, setting the standard to which we should be aspiring today.' As for other personal favourites, he mentions the Smithsons' Economist complex and Denys Lasdun's Royal College of Physicians in Regent's Park - 'a lovely response to the setting, strong but sensitive'.
With more than 40 years in independent practice (after serving his apprenticeship in Lasdun's office), Cullinan has become indelibly associated with ideals of community service and social and environmental responsibility in architecture - housing, educational, cultural and community-care buildings have formed the bulk of Edward Cullinan Architects' workload over four decades. Housing, he admits, tends to be seen as unglamorous, even dull, vital a commodity as it is. 'It now seems to have an awards system of its own - it's seen as 'background'.' For Cullinan, 'background' architecture matters just as much as, if not more than, iconic landmarks, though it is the latter that tend to capture media attention and generate public interest. Not that he wants to join the 'anti-icon' brigade. Gehry's Bilbao Guggenheim has, at the very least, sublime moments, he says. 'The central space and the big exhibition gallery are simply great, though the rest of the interior is surprisingly matter of fact.' Libeskind's Imperial War Museum North 'is wonderful, once you know the thinking behind it. Icons have to work on an emotional as well as a rational level. It's a pity that so many aspiring icons fail to lift the spirits.' And as for Will Alsop's recent - and controversial - OCAD (Ontario College of Art & Design, AJ 24.6.04) project in Toronto: 'It's absolutely perfect for that city, confident and stylish. How many of those who've attacked it have ever been to Toronto?' As a Stirling judge, Cullinan has one highly desirable quality: open-mindedness. Admittedly, he thinks that too much so-called traditional architecture is just 'lowgrade, under-scaled Edwardianism - not even approaching the work of Soane or Nash in quality'. But stylistic matters concern him less than the spatial and urban contributions of a project. 'You may like or dislike the style of Stirling's Staatsgalerie, for example, but just look at that plan - absolutely wonderful!'
It's important, he says, that the imperative to highlight the social contribution of architecture should not mean that office buildings or private houses are unlikely to win the Stirling Prize. The shortlist, he says, should be based on quality alone. And the fact that the big Lottery projects have now dried up means that cultural/educational projects like Magna (the 2002 Stirling winner), Tate Modern, the Eden Project and the Laban Centre (last year's winner) will no longer dominate the shortlist.
Cullinan, now in his 70s, has no intention of retiring in the near future. 'Maybe I'll be thinking about it when I get to 80. The practice isn't about one person anyway, and there are plenty of others, most of them half my age, ready to take it forward.' With a staff of about 30, as large as it has ever been, Edward Cullinan Architects is currently at work on glasshouses for the botanical gardens in both Edinburgh and Cambridge, housing ('I hate the term - let's say houses and flats') in Bristol and Gloucester, and other projects (one in central London) which must for the moment remain confidential. Cullinan himself is working on a book that will bring together the fruits of many years of teaching and lecturing - he is one of the few architects who has the knack of capturing the attention of a lay audience.
Cullinan's office is democratic and he is a democrat to the core, critical of the arrogance of some of his fellow professionals but equally a defender of the profession against ill-informed critics. 'I really welcome the idea of the public voting for the Stirling Prize and I think the jury has got to pay attention to the vote. But we can't be bound by it. Our job is to visit the buildings, study them and see how they work for their users, then make the case for our final choice.' As the only architect practising in the UK on the Stirling Prize jury this time round, Cullinan is very much the representative of the profession in Britain. It would be hard to think of a senior British architect who commands such widespread respect and affection across the spectrum of styles and fashions.
You never doubt that he feels passionately about buildings, and equally strongly about the duty of the architect to make life better for people. Touring with Ted, wherever the shortlist takes the jury, is likely to be an education in itself.