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'The dreary British scene needs some ideas from the continent'

Spanish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale
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Architecture critic William JR Curtis gives his take on the RIBA Stirling Prize shortlist

So what is on the Stirling menu this time around? A minimally correct pavilion in the south western English landscape combining a subtle reading of its rural site with some echoes of Mies; a riverside campus in Glasgow with a good planning rationale but a clumsy and clichéd architectural expression; a suave insertion of glazed cylinders in the Oxford urban landscape which reinvents the atrium with a little help from Frank Lloyd Wright’s spirals and provides academia with a vaguely corporate panache; a series of urban art spaces in London with a gutsy industrial brick exterior but with oddly proportioned and formulaic white interiors and a false note of a flashy stair; a competent refurbishment of a stodgy library building by Giles Gilbert Scott (again in Oxford); and a worthy housing project in south London which has the merit of integrating public spaces and is (we learn) realized with eight kinds of brick.

Prizes need to avoid hype and to maintain a little historical and geographical perspective while concentrating on the architectural values of results. The last named project compares unfavourably with the the Santry Demesne Social Housing near Dublin (2009) by DTA Architects (Tynan and Rowan) or with the Lillington Street Housing in Pimlico designed half a century ago by Darbourne and Darke which both handled similar townscape issues with greater control and spatial richness. It pales into insignificance alongside a masterpiece such as the Torres del Parque in Bogota (late 1960s) by Rogelio Salmona.Plenty of bricks there too, even a spiralling plaza at the base, but the whole establishing a measured hierarchy between units, towers, public spaces, existing city and surrounding landscape.

This is architecture of a high order guided by a social vision, an architectural culture, a coherent language, relevant ideas and a fine sense of craft. Suppose that one were to organise a week long study tour of recent architecture for some alert and probing students from a high quality school of architecture, say a Spanish one: what country would one chose to visit? Britain? If the Stirling Prize short list is a true barometer of what is going on in British work, and if the Spanish Pavilion of the Venice Architectural Biennale (pictured) is even an approximate guide to the vitality of work by young architects working is Spain, then they might do best to stay at home. It looks as if the slightly dreary and fatigued British architectural scene could do with an enriching immigration of ideas from the European continent. 

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