After months of mostly bad news in architecture, it’s good to have something positive to discuss even if it is a strange shortlist

It seems like only yesterday I was blogging about the Stirling prize 2008, and yet here we are with a fresh shortlist. In a year of mostly bad news for architecture, with thousands of redundancies and Chelsea Barracks tearing a rift in the profession, British Architecture’s Most Prestigious Award™ feels like a tonic for the jaded commenteriat. Finally, something positive to discuss.

However, this is a strange shortlist and one that will no doubt inspire some controversy. For example, can a masterplan really win a prize for the UK’s best building? Are the two Rogers buildings on the shortlist to placate his recent snubbing by Qatari Diar – or in fact the snubbing of Terminal 5 by last year’s jury? And if you were going to nominate one Eric Parry building of the last year for the Stirling, wouldn’t it be the cracking St Martin-in-the-Fields revamp rather than this frankly unremarkable commercial scheme?

If there is a theme to the architecture recognised in this shortlist, it is modesty. There are precious few sexy curves and loud statements here. The two Rogers buildings, for example, are among the smallest the practice have completed in recent years – a hospice of soothing calmness in west London, and a winery emerging from the ochre earth of southern Spain. Clearly, Rogers is more successful when he is not thinking big, as he was with the critically-maligned Chelsea Barracks proposals.

Which is not to say scale has been completely ignored – Building Design Partnership’s 41-acre masterplan for Liverpool One is one of the first to be nominated for the Stirling (MJP Architects’ Phoenix Initiative masterplan in Coventry, shortlisted in 2004, is the only other). I remember whispers of discontent from some architects at this year’s Building Awards when Liverpool One won our Project of the Year. I think this was more to do with Grosvenor’s handling of the job than the masterplan per se, but I wonder whether this shortlisting will provoke more grumbling.

Fretton, currently the bookies’ favourite, is a long overdue nominee for the Stirling, but I can’t say I’m blown away by the Fugslang Kunstmuseum. I’m not sure the bleak-looking photos do it justice, though, and I haven’t visited it so will hold my tongue. What I can say is I’m looking forward to see if Kevin McCloud can pronounce that name without accidentally swearing on Channel 4 come October.

Good to see AHMM on the list again, for the Kentish Town Health Centre, a building which our esteemed editor for one considers one of the best of the year. Social infrastructure clearly brings out the best in this architect – having narrowly failed to win with a school last year, AHMM may have more luck with this rather more restrained NHS centre. It’s a rare example of a public sector building making the list, which is itself worthy of celebration.

Then there’s Eric Parry’s 5 Aldermanbury Square. I really thought the architect’s sensitive and complex refurbishment of St Martin-in-the-Fields would be on the shortlist, and it is a surprise to see this nominated instead. It is elegant, I’m sure its flexible floor plates have delighted its client, and it has won some BCO Awards, but is it really one of the six best buildings completed in the last year? The judges evidently think so, but I’m not convinced.

So who missed out? It seems a more London-centric list than usual, with three of the six nominated buildings situated in the capital. I thought Bennetts Associates’ Potterrow building at Edinburgh University might be in with a shout, and perhaps Hawkins/Brown will feel unlucky to have missed out for its colourful biochemistry building at Oxford university. McDowell Benedotti’s Castleford Bridge would have been a fine addition to the shortlist, and after four national awards each, both Allies and Morrison and Niall McLaughlin must be disappointed.

It’s not easy to predict a winner. Perhaps the two most likely are the two European buildings, but that would mean that three of the four most recent Stirling winners would be situated overseas – not a great vote of support for architecture in the UK. I would prefer to see the Maggie’s Centre win. An architect currently in need of some light critical rehabilitation, a client that is owed recognition for its contribution to architecture, and a building of rare warmth and purpose. It would certainly give us a lot to discuss.