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2023 Stirling Prize winner: John Morden Centre by Mae

"What do such dutifully dull shortlists say about the wider state of the Stirling?"

Yet another low-key shortlist for the Stirling Prize this year reflects UK architecture's continued fading from the public eye, writes Catherine Slessor.

In line with the bookies' predictions, this year's Stirling Prize went to Mae's John Morden Centre daycare facility for Morden College, a charity that provides residential care for the elderly. Emblematic of what might be described as the "good ordinary", John Morden is thoughtful and unassuming, designed for a user constituency of active, older people, who all too often can be patronised, neglected and isolated. It's second-time lucky for Mae, which was also on the Stirling shortlist last year with Sand End Arts and Community Centre, another apt and robust manifestation of the "good ordinary".

If I were a betting woman, my money this year would have been on Apparata's House for Artists in Barking, a scheme both radical and delightful in the way it frames an armature for domestic life and creative practice. But in its thoughtful and unassuming way, Mae's project evidently seduced the Stirling jury, chaired by OMA's Ellen van Loon.

In some respects, this palpable shift to consistent earnestness is welcome

As is customary, there has been much picking over the entrails of the shortlist to see what it tells us about the state of British architecture. Along with Mae's daycare centre were three residential projects (including Apparata's), as well as a tactful restoration of the Courtauld Gallery at Somerset House and an arts faculty for Warwick University. Essentially, then, another low-key lineup – no billion-pound Bloombergs or statement distilleries.

For better or worse, this now seems to be the default setting of Stirling shortlists, arrived at through a long, rubber-stamped odyssey of scrupulous evaluation at RIBA regional and national awards level. From hundreds of hopefuls, six contenders finally emerge, supposedly crystallising the essence of "good architecture". And then, of course, comes the challenge of choosing a winner from often very disparate projects; rather like judging a literary prize in which a slim volume of poetry vies with a cookery book. But this year, the shortlist seemed less disparate, all cut from the same thoughtful and unassuming cloth. Really, any one of them could have won it.

In some respects, this palpable shift to consistent earnestness is welcome. Architecture isn't a disposable art form. It controls and shapes daily lives while manifesting complex social, political and cultural ambitions. Big-ticket projects might still get all the attention, but are not most people's quotidian experience of architecture. In the face of the current exigencies faced by the profession and the society it serves, there is clearly a need to recognise and rediscover a better kind of ordinary.

Yet I couldn't help but wonder: what do such dutifully dull shortlists say about the wider state of the Stirling? What purports to be the profession's leading architectural awards programme has become curiously introverted; becalmed, even. Those heady days when MAXXI would duke it out with the Neues Museum, Barajas battle with the Phaeno Science Centre, under a glitter ball at the Camden Roundhouse, while Kevin McCloud strode imperiously among packed dining tables pursued by cameramen and Klieg lights, reminding everyone that they were on LIVE TELEVISION are now a very distant memory.

Back then, whatever you may have thought of Kevin and the glitter ball, the Stirling was a conspicuous event. From fitful beginnings in 1996 (somewhat unbelievably, Stephen Hodder was its first recipient), it gathered momentum to become an annual cultural waypoint, like the Booker or the Turner, prestigious established prizes on which it was ambitiously templated.

Fluffed and amplified by media coverage, it wormed its way into the national conversation as architects, clients, critics and TV presenters attempted to explain to the public why this particular shortlist of buildings had been chosen; why they crystallised the essence of "good architecture". However artfully confected, the Stirling embodied a genuine sense of excitement about buildings, in tandem with the travelling circus of its awards evening, which covered the ground from the Roundhouse to Rotherham.

The profession's leading architectural awards programme has become curiously introverted

Now, it feels like architects are, once again, talking among themselves, despite the exhibition of the shortlisted schemes at the RIBA, despite the associated talks programme and despite the gala bacchanale in Manchester that would have set you back £349 (plus VAT) for a ticket.

Doubtless there are structural and logistical reasons for all this. The strategic hiving off of international projects into a separate RIBA award has effectively removed glamorous foreign outliers from contention. Never again will a MAXXI or a Barajas win the Stirling. The non-renewal (or simple unavailability) of once-lucrative sponsorship deals has meant horns being drawn in and a general aura of cheeseparing, to the extent that there is no longer a cash prize for the winner (it was originally £20,000). In recent years, the awards ceremony was obliged to return to RIBA headquarters at Portland Place, conducted in the bunker of the Jarvis Hall, like a glorified school speech day.

Dedicated television coverage of the Stirling, which used to feature each of the shortlisted schemes in some detail, has now been supplanted by the RIBA's House of the Year, reducing architecture's myriad typological gene pool to a handful of vacuous vignettes dedicated to house porn. Perhaps it was concluded that television viewers aren't necessarily interested in different sorts of buildings, but the emphasis on dream homes gives them no choice and merely serves to reinforce a wretchedly idealised Daily Mail vision of the built environment.

Awards are a fact of life for most practices, the imprimatur of an RIBA gong seen as crucial in attracting clients and burnishing reputations. In turn, the RIBA rakes in entry fees. But within this cycle of co-dependency, there is a sense of complacency. It should not be beyond the RIBA to make a more effective job of promoting and disseminating the Stirling, its most publicly accessible award for architecture, and get ordinary people talking about good buildings. If the premise of the Stirling has moved on from the starchitect years in favour of more modest, "relatable" projects, then shouldn't they too have the opportunity to be discussed and valorised in a wider context? Shouldn't the "good ordinary" also go to the ball?

Catherine Slessor is an architecture editor, writer and critic. She is the president of architectural charity the 20th Century Society and former editor of UK magazine The Architectural Review.

The photo is by Jim Stephenson.

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