Immoral icons

The annual Stirling Prize celebrates British achievement in architecture. But the winning buildings

What happens to an icon when the cameras leave? Does architecture actually "regenerate" an area, or is it a mere handmaiden to gentrification? These are the sort of questions that tend not to be asked of Stirling Prize-winning buildings. So, with this year's RIBA Stirling Prize, the winning entry was presented as the latest instalment of a long-running political/architectural vendetta rather than a place which will have its own particular use and history.

At least Prince Charles must be annoyed. Having made several high-profile attacks on Richard Rogers (now co-director of Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners), he finally won a direct victory through the cancellation of RSHP's Chelsea Barracks Housing Development, achieved through persistent lobbying of the estate's Qatari developer, a fellow blue-blood. This spat has since provided light relief in an architectural press more concerned with the mass unemployment the profession has faced after the crash, providing a polarised fight between the forces of reaction (in the form of the monarchy) and progress (in the form of Lord Rogers, as much a New Labour apparatchik as a once outrageously talented architect). RSHP's two 2009 nominations were already seen as a political statement, even before their Hammersmith Maggie's Centre, a small building for the care of cancer patients, became the second of Rogers' prizewinners, three years after their architecturally dramatic, environmentally dubious Barajas Airport.

This is a reminder that the Stirling Prize can provide drama often lacking in the buttoned-up world of architecture. The Prize started in 1996, as a conscious attempt to provide an architectural equivalent to the Turner, Mercury or Booker Prizes, using competition to bring it to public consciousness. The early winners were 80s hangovers - a coldly high-tech university building by Stephen Hodder, a historical-reference-riffing music school by Michael Wilford - but this was before "regeneration", the utterly ubiquitous Blairite buzzword-cum-building policy that promised to remake the presumably "degenerated" cities.

So the Stirling Prize truly established itself in the public eye, with Channel 4 assistance, in the form of a run of prizewinners in former industrial or working class areas. Will Alsop's Peckham Library in 2000, Wilkinson Eyre's Gateshead Millennium Bridge and Magna Science Centre in Rotherham, Herzog & De Meuron's Laban Dance Centre in Deptford. With the addition of the 2004 winner, Foster & Partners' 30 St Mary Axe (ie, "the Gherkin"), these buildings defined the architectural production of Blairism at its height. This is the architecture of the "urban renaissance", of the "icon", of the "Bilbao effect", after Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum, saviour of the Basque city.

It generally takes place in an area once devoted to either working class housing or industry. It has an instantly recognisable, logo-like form. It is usually a building for leisure rather than work or housing, and it tends to be grinningly optimistic, achingly aspirational.

These buildings have often been critiqued from a functional perspective. The Leeds-based practice Bauman Lyons commissioned a study into a selection of Stirling Prize-winning buildings, finding out from their regular users and staff that they had some rather mundane defects: leaking roofs at Magna, overheating at the Peckham Library, cracking glass at the Laban Centre. This has been used by traditionalists to critique the largely modernist biases of the judges, although recent investigations into Prince Charles' planned village of Poundbury revealed similarly shabby structural failures, without even the excuse of experimentation - and at least no Stirling-winning building has ever suffered from a leaking false chimney.

These functional critiques do reveal something of the short-termism of iconic architecture, with a building as much as an album or bestseller being allotted a mere 15 minutes of fresh-faced fame before use reveals its limitations - but it ignores a more interesting story of the close fit between these buildings' forms and their functions, the way their politics interweaves with their bright colours and their gymnastic engineering.

We could start with the Peckham Library, winner in 2000. Peckham is one of those inner-London districts about which, perennially, "something must be done", and in this case that something was a library. Unlike many other prize-winning schemes there is no doubting the building's importance, and it is very well used, albeit with a notable lack of books. Unlike David Adjaye's Stirling-nominated Tower Hamlets "Idea Stores", managerial bullshit hasn't entirely replaced self-education, and it's comforting that an area would have a public facility as its most monumental and impressive building, with the word "LIBRARY" rising unmistakably from its green cladding and obligatory wonky pillars. Yet the ideology of regeneration presents such buildings as a fait accompli, single-handedly improving the lives of those in impoverished areas, while the result is more often the middle classes moving into them - such as the end of Peckham estate agents call "Bellenden Village".

The 2001 and 2002 winners, where industrial spaces were converted to leisure by architects Wilkinson Eyre, were a more obvious colonisation of urban space. The Magna Science Centre (note the amount of "Centres" here) was once the Steel, Peech and Tozer steelworks, and now offers up this technical process as an (admittedly astonishing) spectacle, as part of a redevelopment mostly consisting of a desolate business park and attendant call centres. The Gateshead Millennium Bridge, meanwhile, is the centrepiece of what is arguably the most typical example of the once-vaunted "Urban Renaissance".

Downriver of the Tyne Bridge, a section of Gateshead's riverside was turned over to two immediately "iconic" buildings - the biomorphic undulating glass shed of Foster's Sage Music Centre, and a Cyclopean Joseph Rank grain silo that was redesigned by Ellis Williams into the Baltic Centre For Contemporary Art. Coals may now be delivered to Newcastle, but culture has come to Gateshead. What is seldom mentioned is how this ensemble relates itself to the surrounding area. Springing up behind the Baltic is a cluster of poorly designed, poky "luxury" tower blocks with attendant car park (far less architecturally distinguished than Owen Luder's awesome "Get Carter car park" in central Gateshead, currently being demolished as an obstacle to regeneration). While this little cultural district is poorly connected to Gateshead's estates and terraces, it is directly linked to the executive flats of Newcastle Quayside - via the Millennium Bridge, an etiolated structure representing the ease of an allegedly leisured society, as opposed to the fiercely mechanical Tyne bridges upstream.

Stirling Prizewinners often have very direct effects on their surrounding areas, which seldom feature in the brochures and television programmes. The Laban Centre, Herzog & De Meuron's dance school in Deptford, South-East London, winner in 2003, is a fine combination of the alien and the familiar, its drizzly metallic skin curving around the Creek. Adjacent, under construction, are a series of blocks of flats of significantly inferior architectural quality (which are nevertheless "in keeping") who claim on their hoarding to be "inspired by dance", and proclaim their sponsorship by RBS.

In almost all of these examples, the prizewinning building has become the advance guard of gentrification, each "icon" bringing in its train a familiar menagerie of property developers' "stunning developments", aiming to change the area's demographics. Perhaps aware of this, the Stirling judges have lately been veering away from the spectacular and iconic in favour of something more upstanding. David Chipperfield's Marbach Museum of Modern Literature, the 2007 winner, was a stern stripped-classical temple redolent of Fascist-era Italian architecture, sombre enough to calm even Prince Charles' nerves.

Recipient in 2008 was Fielden Clegg Bradley's Accordia, a housing estate in Cambridge. This was explicitly couched as an anti-iconic statement in the context of the financial crash, amusingly, as its self-effacing soft-modernist courtyards hide an indubitably luxury development, for affluent folk who prefer not to flaunt their bling. There is an "affordable" bit, where far smaller houses abut a nuclear bunker, built for the site's former incarnation as an MOD base. The bunker tends not to feature in the photos.

The 2009 Stirling shortlist presented a New Labour menagerie - finance capital, private meddling in public services, shopping and surveillance. Aside from a winery by RSHP and a retro-modern art museum by Tony Fretton, there was an office block for Scottish Widows by Eric Parry, in London's financial district; a jolly PFI Health Centre by AHMM, commissioned by the private-public Local Improvement Finance Trust (LIFT); and BDP's masterplan for Liverpool One, a privately owned and patrolled "mall without walls". If these had won, the jury would have given their implicit imprimatur to the City of London, the Private Finance Initiative or urban Enclosures.

Yet the Maggie's Centres are the sort of buildings many architects might prefer to build - places with a genuinely humanitarian purpose, although most would hope never to visit one. The Centres are named after the late Maggie Keswick Jencks, a designer and writer who founded a charity to commission world-class architecture for informal cancer-care centres, attached to NHS Hospitals. Perhaps Rogers won not because of republicanism on the part of the Royal Institute of British Architects, but because his Maggie's Centre was the only building the judges could morally justify.

Owen Hatherley's "Militant Modernism" is published by Zero Books