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When the Stirling Prize was announced this Saturday, the widow of Enric Miralles, the Spanish architect of the Scottish Parliament building, was suddenly ?20,000 richer, and the rest of us were informed of which single building "has made the greatest contribution to British architecture in the past year" -- whatever that means. The criterion for the Stirling prize may be murky, but it ensures that the most public of arts is evaluated and discussed in the most public of ways.
It has become tradition, in the 10 years the prize has been given, that soon after the shortlist of five buildings is announced by the Royal Institute of British Architects, bookie William Hill publishes odds on their chances of winning. The result is that architectural innovation has become a betting sport in Britain. The awards ceremony is broadcast live on TV and has in the past included the kind of profanity and politics that begs for a five-second delay. Just as the Oscars are the movies' big night, the Stirling gives Britons an occasion to care about architecture.
STAR POWER. The U.S. has no equivalent. While the American Institute of Architects conducts an extensive awards program, little notice is typically paid outside of the professional press. The Chicago-based Hyatt Foundation annually dispenses the Pritzker Prize -- widely considered architecture's Nobel -- but it's for a single architect's complete body of work, and is awarded internationally, rather than exclusively to an American or for buildings built in the U.S.
As a result, while blockbuster museums (like New York's redesigned Museum of Modern Art) or politically charged building fights (like the redevelopment of Ground Zero) generate much attention, the design quality and innovation of buildings more generally isn't a topic of public debate.
Does American architecture suffer as a result? Its upper echelons are as fertile as they've been in decades, with creative superstars like Frank Gehry, Daniel Libeskind, and Peter Eisenman all working both at home and abroad. And regional styles are alive and well, with firms like Miller/Hull in Seattle or Lake/Flato in San Antonio creating modern architecture with a distinct sense of place.
ART IN THE CITY. Yet a culture of low-cost building keeps architects on the sidelines for most new construction. There lies the promise of the Stirling Prize: not in encouraging architectural ambition in art museums and concert halls (where it exists already), but in government buildings and children's centers, office parks, factories, and local libraries.
These are, in fact, exactly the building types included on this year's shortlist. From the BMW Central Building in Leipzig, Germany, by Zaha Hadid Architects to the Jubilee Library in Brighton, Britain, by Bennetts Associates with Lomax Cassidy + Edwards, the buildings short-listed for this year's Stirling show that you don't have to go to a museum to see great architecture.