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Iconic status is no longer an issue for this year's Stirling efforts

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Graz isn't letting the grass grow under its feet. Having had a successful year as European City of Culture, it is now planning to capitalise on this. Its array of events includes a programme for the Kunsthaus, the tentacled amoeba that is now an essential part of the city's new identity. It is no surprise that this building is one of the six shortlisted for this year's Stirling Prize. And for those with as much interest in the ironic as the iconic, the sexagenarian duo of academics who designed it are the nearest thing that this year's shortlist has to a new young practice, with little track record of completed buildings.

Although Charles Jencks derides Graham Morrison's description of some buildings as 'true icons' while criticising others (Ajenda, pages 20-24), the RIBA Awards Group has made a similar distinction, albeit without direct comment. The two greatest surprises on the shortlist are the omission of the latest Maggie's Centre in Dundee and the Birmingham Selfridges by those two great iconmakers, Frank Gehry and Future Systems.

Nevertheless, four of the shortlisted buildings could be described as iconic (a word we must all expunge from our vocabularies, since it has become virtually meaningless through overuse). Foster's 'gherkin' passes the taxi-driver test of instant recognition and is the bookies' favourite. By dealing with war and tying the building and the exhibition together closely, Libeskind's Imperial War Museum North creates the type of narrative to which his designs are most comfortably anchored.

With the Spire in Dublin, Ian Ritchie has achieved the kind of perfection possible only when a building does not have to deal with such messy issues as occupiers.

Those who dislike any or all of these buildings should bear in mind Jencks' argument that a building cannot be an icon unless it has a 'negative charge'. But there are two other buildings on the shortlist that sidestep this debate. MacCormac Jamieson Prichard's Coventry project addresses the other headline issue of urban design, while Foster's second shortlisted project, the Business Academy Bexley, is what everybody wants to see - a successful education building. The judges should have an interesting time.

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