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Constructive criticism

The Balancing Barn would have livened up the rather drab Stirling shortlist. Oh well, at least there's the Carbuncle Cup to look forward to

The Olympic Velodrome, by Hopkins Architects, is a handsome building, taut and intelligent in its detail. Delivered on time and on budget, it has lightness, flair and a sense of contained drama, beneath a doubly-curving roof that some irresponsible critics have compared to a giant Pringle. It stands out from a drab-ish list of contenders for this year's Stirling prize, and is the bookmakers' favourite. There's just one problem: it has yet to perform the task for which it was designed, which is to hold Olympic cycling events before capacity crowds. So it's hard to say that it is a truly successful piece of architecture. It's a bit like a bike that's never been ridden.

The Stirling list would be less drab had it included MVRDV's Balancing Barn, a silver beam of a house projected into mid-air and built for Alain de Botton's Living Architecture holiday homes project. Then there's the Wales Institute of Sustainable Education by Pat Borer and David Lea, a work of ingenuity and rammed earth in an old slate quarry. Its inclusion would have been an opportunity to recognise architects outside the London orbit of fashion and schmoozery.

Instead, the list includes works by Zaha Hadid and David Chipperfield – both once slighted by the Stirling but now regulars – and Bennetts Associates' efficient but not very exciting Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford. There is also AHMM's remodelling of an old office building in Islington. All are decent buildings, but the balance, as too often with the Stirling, is conservative and predictable.

If the velodrome is up for the prize a year too early, then a deserving winner might be O'Donnell and Tuomey's An Gaeláras cultural centre in Derry, which (though I confess it is the one work on the list I haven't seen) looks to be a robust, well-wrought and fitting sequence of spaces. Then again, the same architects might be contenders for next year's prize with their more substantial Lyric Theatre in Belfast; it might seem excessive if they won it two years running. Then again (again), they never worried about Norman Foster winning more than once, and maybe architecture, like golf, is something at which Northern Ireland is getting good.

Meanwhile, the Stirling prize's evil twin, Building Design magazine's Carbuncle Cup, is also announcing its shortlist. This award honours the country's worst building and there are some who say that it is unduly negative to pillory individual works in this way. Arguably so, but it is not half so negative to point out bad architecture as it is to put it up in the first place.

I am uninfluenced in this judgment by the fact that, with other critics, I will be an (unpaid) juror for the cup this year. I cannot possibly give an advance indication of our deliberations – mostly because I don't know what they will be – but I am struck by the poignant fact that one of this year's contenders, 3XN's new Museum of Liverpool, is a short distance from the 2009 winner, the Pier Head Terminal, and that both are in the middle of a Unesco World Heritage Site (you can read more about all this in Sunday's Observer). Equally poignant is the inclusion of Rogers Stirk Harbour's One Hyde Park, given that the practice was supported by London's former mayor on the grounds of its supposedly world-class design. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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