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Katherine Shonfield

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The prime-time televising of the Stirling Prize is not just an isolated jamboree: weekly architectural judgements on Radio 4's Front Row and its influential Saturday Review programme evidence a huge growth in the informed audience for architecture. It would take a curmudgeon of miserable proportions to be churlish in the face of it. So here goes.

The billing of the Stirling contest in equivalent terms to the Booker Prize presents a number of implications that are worth pondering.

A building can be read in the equivalent way to a book and the judges/critics, not the users, know how to read a building.

A building is the equivalent of a big fat book. It is the judges/critics who will read a building in depth, seeing things that we others, in our haste or ignorance, will have overlooked.

As much as there is a measurable, if approximate, amount of time in which a book can be read, there is an unspoken set time during which a building can be read. So, presumably, it would not do at all for the Stirling Prize judges to hang out in Walsall for a few weeks while spending a couple of hours doing a supermarket dash at Sainsbury's in Greenwich.

If you want to know what all this means for the everyday assessment of architecture, then the previous Saturday Review's judgement of Renzo Piano's proposal for a tower block on London's South Bank was a case in point. This building, which will affect the lives of thousands environmentally as a place of work and affect the social life - or death - of the streets which surround it, was seen in terms of consumption alone. It was discussed as a desirable object understood only through the eye, to be judged 'aesthetically' like some oversized Philippe Starck lemon squeezer from a privileged view from the north bank of the City, to be bought or not, according to the whim of the moment. That's what it means.

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