Eyes On The Prize

by The New Republic | April 26, 1999

For two decades now, the Pritzker Prize has mirrored the best and the worst in contemporary architecture. For many observers of the arts, indeed, the very idea of such a prize is deeply problematic. Applying competitive standards to creative efforts is at best irrelevant and at worst destructive, prompting feelings of superiority, envy, and inadequacy among artists already prone to such low and distracting emotions. But high-priced awards, particularly in architecture, have proliferated in recent decades, and the publicity that they generate has grown accordingly.

Though architects were once limited to symbolic prizes given by professional organizations, they are now also eligible for remunerative honors from several private foundations. In 1994, for example, Frank Gehry became the first winner of the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Award, a $250,000 prize for lifetime contribution to the arts. Since Gehry is likely to be remembered as the greatest architect of the last quarter of this century, it would be churlish to point out that he was chosen by a jury that, in addition to the architect Hugh Hardy, included the comedienne Carol Burnett, the actor Roddy McDowall, and the musician John Williams.

The most prestigious award in the building art today is the Pritzker Architecture Prize, which carries a $100,000 honorarium. It was conceived in the mid-1970s by the late Carleton Smith, an eccentric freelance cultural entrepreneur and consultant. Smith proposed that there ought to be a new award created as the equivalent of the Nobel Prize, since the Nobel Prizes omitted an award for architecture--an odd enough conceit, in that only the Nobel Prize in Literature is given for an artistic effort. He first tried to win the patronage of J. Paul Getty, the fabulously rich but notoriously stingy oil tycoon. Smith cannily enlisted the help of two art-world power brokers--the art historian Kenneth Clark and J. Carter Brown, director of the National Gallery of Art--in trying to bell the old fat cat, but to no avail. Little did they know that Getty (who was to die in 1976) had already decided to leave the bulk of his vast estate to create the most lavishly endowed art foundation ever.

Smith hit paydirt in 1979 with Jay Pritzker, the owner of the Hyatt Hotel chain and other extensive holdings, and his wife Cindy. Apart from the sheer hubris of attempting to position the new award alongside the world's most famous series of prizes, there is a further and unintentionally ironic parallel between the two programs. Alfred Nobel, who endowed the peace prize, made his fortune by inventing TNT; and Jay Pritzker, who endowed this architecture prize, made his fortune through the construction of singularly banal buildings (the new Grand Hyatt Hotel in Berlin, by Jose Rafael Moneo, winner of the 1996 prize, is a notable exception). Still, there is so little public recognition given to architecture beyond professional or industrysponsored awards that the Pritzker was quickly accepted as the definitive honor in its field, eclipsing its most coveted predecessors, the Gold Medals of the Royal Institute of British Architects (founded in 1848) and the American Institute of Architects (founded in 1907).

The twentieth-anniversary festivities for the Pritzker Prize began last June, with a black-tie dinner for 550 guests at the White House, given by the Clintons but presumably underwritten by the Pritzkers, who had long been major Democratic campaign contributors. At the end of the evening, the prize for 1998 was presented to the estimable Italian architect Renzo Piano by Jay Pritzker. The perfectly orchestrated event turned out to be a last hurrah for the hotelier, who died in January at the age of 76. The year-long Pritzker commemorative celebrations--now with memorial overtones--culminate this May with the opening of a retrospective exhibition, "The Pritzker Architecture Prize: The First Twenty Years," at the Art Institute of Chicago, in the Pritzkers' hometown. (It will be on view through September 26, after which it travels to the Heinz Architectural Center at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh.) The show, a largely photographic display of the winners' work, is accompanied by a heavily illustrated catalog (Abrams/Art Institute of Chicago, $49.50) with contributions by Colin Amery, J. Carter Brown, William J.R. Curtis, Bill N. Lacy, and Martha Thorne. And in Berlin in June, the Pritzker Prize for 1999 will be conferred on Norman Foster, a high-tech Modernist whose rebuilding of the Reichstag, completed this month, is his most prominent work to date.

The Pritzker Prize got off to a dubious start with the naming of its first winner, Philip Johnson, in 1979. At the time, Johnson's selection was widely deemed necessary to establish the credibility of the award. Here was the quintessential crossover honoree, a chameleon-like figure who variously assumes the guise of businessman or artist, godfather or avant-gardist. Who could possibly object to Johnson, the man reflexively referred to as "the dean of American architects?" Or so the first Pritzker jurors--Carter Brown, Kenneth Clark, the architecture patron J. Irwin Miller, and the architects Arata Isozaki and Cesar Pelli--must have thought.

Johnson has been many things throughout his remarkable seventy-year career. He was the first director of the Museum of Modern Art's pioneering architecture department and design collection, and a Nazi sympathizer, and an incisive critic (save of his own work), and a prescient art collector, and a generous donor, and an avid promoter of young talent. The one thing he has not been is a great architect. To be sure, he produced a half-dozen or so excellent designs before he received the Pritzker, but the general quality of Johnson's buildings has ranged from mediocre to embarrassing. The award was presented to Johnson a year after he unveiled his appalling Chippendale-Fascist design for the AT&T corporate headquarters in New York, and it gave a spectacular boost to his marketability at the very onset of the building boom of the 1980s. That practical benefit was not lost on other architects, many of whom came to regard the Pritzker above all as an effective means of gaining new commissions.

A far more satisfying choice for the Pritzker was made on its second outing, when Luis BarragAn, the Mexican vernacular minimalist, was named in 1980. Only four years earlier, at the age of seventy-four, BarragAn suddenly catapulted from unknown to cult figure on the strength of his reputation-making retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, a context that emphasized the affinities between his architecture and the minimalist sculpture of the 1970s. He was a most admirable figure, a reclusive artist who had eschewed the international star system and instead quietly pursued his reductive yet sensual work--mainly houses and gardens in his native country--with an obliviousness to the shifting fashions, the political influences, and the economic imperatives that distort so many other architectural talents. BarragAn had the further advantage of not being American, unlike one-third of the Pritzker recipients to date, an imbalance the jury has tried to rectify through its sometimes strenuous efforts to broaden the award's geographical distribution.

The winner in 1981, the British architect James Stirling, was then in the midst of creating his masterpiece, the Neue Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart, the most critically acclaimed building of a decade that witnessed an unprecedented increase in museum construction. Stirling, who began his career as a modernist most influenced by Le Corbusier, moved on to embrace a wide array of other twentieth-century sources (including Russian Constructivism). By the late 1970s, however, he had edged toward an abstracted classical vocabulary that would see him transformed, with his Stuttgart scheme, into a full-blown postmodernist. Though he was a fecund architectural talent, the quality of his work was wildly uneven. Despite a few memorable buildings--especially his and James Gowan's career-launching Leicester University Engineering Building of 1959-63, a witty anthology of high-modernist quotations--many were duds or functional disasters. Seven years after his death, he now seems a far less important figure than he did when he won the Pritzker.

After stirling, there followed (with some noteworthy interruptions) a series of mainstream American modernists more noted for their synthetic approach to design, and for their corporate organizational methods, than for artistic distinction. The selection of Kevin Roche in 1982 was particularly baffling. As successor firm to the office of Eero Saarinen after his untimely death in 1961, Kevin Roche, John Dinkeloo and Associates never approximated Saarinen's generally high standard of originality and quality. If any of Roche Dinkeloo's work gains a place in future histories, it will most likely be the once highly praised but deeply anti-urban Ford Foundation building of 1963-68 in New York, not the firm's several sinister-looking corporate headquarters in suburban settings. (Roche served as a Pritzker juror from 1983 to 1991.)

As predictable as Philip Johnson's inaugural Pritzker was the selection of the supremely premiable I.M. Pei in 1983. Pei has for the most part avoided the outright kitsch that Johnson has produced throughout his mercurial career, but his bland if consistently adept manipulations of simple geometric forms--especially the triangle (the basis of his East Building of 1971-78 at the National Gallery in Washington) and the pyramid (the iconic centerpiece of his 1983-93 renovation and expansion of the Louvre)--have for four decades passed as architectural profundity. Pei's Pritzker successor, Richard Meier, received the award just months before he won the commission to design the Getty Center of 1984-1997 in Los Angeles, the most sought-after architectural project in recent memory. "It was unclear to me how the prize would affect the decision of the Getty selection committee," Meier wrote disingenuously in Building the Getty, his memoir of the project, "although it could hardly be a liability."

Despite their surface differences, Pei and Meier may well be viewed similarly in historical hindsight. Both architects pride themselves on their perfectionism and good taste; but their paucity of inventiveness and their obsession with correctness have locked them into reiterative habits that give their cumulative outputs a pronounced lack of development, much like those painters who chance upon a salable formula and stick with it relentlessly.

By 1984, when four of the six Pritzker winners were Americans, there was a strong impetus to widen the geographical range of the prize. How else to account for the choice of the insubstantial Austrian postmodernist Hans Hollein in 1985 and the obscure German omni-stylist Gottfried Bohm a year later? Both are certain to be accorded minor places in the annals of twentieth-century architecture. Then, in 1987, a major juncture was marked with the appointment of the architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable to the Pritzker jury. During her twelve years of service, Huxtable is said to have become the most influential member, and there are indications, especially in the roster of architects chosen since she began, to support that supposition. At the time of her arrival, postmodernism was in the ascendant, and Huxtable, never an advocate of that movement, was eager to make a dramatic polemical statement reasserting the values of modernism.

During the 1980s, Japan was by far the most exciting locus of innovative architecture in the world, and it teemed with brilliant young talent. Yet the first non-Western recipient of the Pritzker, in 1987, was Kenzo Tange, the arch-establishment elder statesman of Japanese architecture. Tange was the dominant figure of his country's massive postwar rebuilding and the first Japanese architect to gain wide attention in the West. Most famous for his gymnasia at the Olympics in Tokyo in 1964, Tange reinterpreted traditional Japanese architectural motifs with the materials and the technology of Western modernism, as well as a high degree of structural exhibitionism.

In 1988, in the same reparative spirit (and because the Pritzker is not awarded posthumously), the Pritzker was divided between two surviving figures of the glory days of modernism: the 81-year-old Oscar Niemeyer of Brazil and the 79-year-old American Gordon Bunshaft. They never worked together, and their widely divergent approaches made this a piquant pairing: Niemeyer the Corbusian sensualist and Bunshaft the Miesian rationalist. Niemeyer's voluptuously sculptural buildings of the 1950s and '60s for the new capital city of Brasilia were a physical and spiritual world away from Bunshaft's straitlaced early corporate schemes, epitomized by the Lever House of 1951-52 in New York, though his travertine-clad Lyndon Baines Johnson Library of 1969- 71 in Austin would have fit seamlessly into Brasilia. The immense success of both men signified the triumph of modernism as it was accepted by government and business establishments in the decades after World War II. By 1988, however, Niemeyer and Bunshaft were decades past their creative prime, and their selection had the retroactive air of a Hollywood lifetime achievement award.

With the ideological score-settling out of the way, the Pritzker then entered its most admirable stretch, beginning with the naming of Frank Gehry in 1989, who was then completing his breakthrough public work, the Vitra Design Museum of 1986-89 in Weil-am-Rhein, Germany. (It has taken the American Institute of Architects a full decade since then to give its Gold Medal to Gehry, who received it in February, three weeks before his seventieth birthday. The conservative AIA--the equivalent of the American Bar Association and the American Medical Association--was no doubt shamed into that long-overdue recognition by the overwhelming praise heaped on Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao since it opened a year and a half ago.)

Equally deserving was the Italian Aldo Rossi, who was selected in 1990. Despite his comparatively small number of built works, Rossi (who died in 1997) created a comprehensive and deeply moving vision of architecture through his introspective writings and his huge corpus of architectural drawings, most of them produced as meditative fantasies rather than practical documents. He did not fit comfortably into either the modernist or postmodernist sects. Working in a pared-down classical manner, he maintained his independence from the factional alignments that characterized the style-obsessed 1980s, while infusing the most traditional of Western vocabularies with contemporary meaning. His Gallaratese 2 housing of 1969-73 in Milan and his Cemetery of San Cataldo of 1971-84 in Modena recall the haunting urban capricci of di Chirico, with their Platonic piazzas and long vistas through shadowy colonnades. Employing the bold, simple geometries of Early Renaissance architecture, Rossi sought to invest modern life with a greater sense of dignity and decorum.

Thus the inevitable favorites have largely dominated the major architectural prizes; but the Pritzker has had distinctly mixed results in identifying less celebrated winners. In an apparent attempt to lower the median age of its recipients, the 1994 prize went to the 49-year-old Frenchman Christian de Portzamparc (the same age as Meier when chosen a decade earlier). Portzamparc's major work, the Cite de la Musique of 1985-92 in Paris, a part of the Grands Projets sponsored by Mitterrand, is a superficially engaging but ultimately shallow scheme, and it is ludicrous to think of Portzamparc as the outstanding figure of his generation in France, let alone in Europe. Other wild cards seem aimed at demonstrating that the Pritzker is not the handmaiden of the international star system. Even architectural specialists were dumbfounded by the naming, in 1997, of Sverre Fehn, a little-known 72-year-old Norwegian who designed his country's pavilion at the Brussels World's Fair of 1958.

Two of the most inspired choices in recent years have been a pair of underappreciated Iberians: Alvaro Siza of Portugal, who won in 1990, and Jose Rafael Moneo of Spain, the recipient in 1996. Like Rossi, neither can be easily consigned to a particular architectural coterie. Siza's austere meldings of vernacular form and modern materials give his small museums and school buildings a sculptural intensity never dependent on size for powerful physical impact. Moneo's majestic National Museum of Roman Art of 1980- 86 in the ancient Hispano-Roman colonial town of Merida is among the finest of present-day museums, a rare example of architecture that helps to more fully explicate the art displayed within it. What both men share, beyond their immense creative gift, is an instinctive responsiveness to site and a profound respect for the spirit of place.

The closest that the Pritzker Prize has come to a scandal erupted in 1991, when the jury chose the Philadelphia-based Pop architect Robert Venturi but not his partner, co-author, and wife Denise Scott Brown. Together Venturi and Scott Brown have been the most influential American architects since their mentor Louis Kahn, who was the greatest of postwar American architects. (It was Kahn who was primarily responsible for re-establishing the validity of historical precedent in modern design, as well as the heroic view of architecture as an art and not merely a technical profession.) The official reason that the Pritzker committee gave for its exclusion of Scott Brown was that the award is conferred on individuals, not partnerships or firms: it had gone to Philip Johnson but not to John Burgee, to James Stirling but not to Michael Wilford, to Kevin Roche but not to John Dinkeloo. This was not very persuasive. Three years before Venturi, the Pritzker had departed from prior practice in jointly naming Bunshaft and Niemeyer, so exceptions were sometimes possible. In any event, the Pritzker was hardly an institution locked into centuries, or even decades, of tradition.

By refusing to name Scott Brown, the Pritzker jury lost the perfect opportunity to cite the pre-eminent woman architect of her generation, a practitioner whose central contribution to the output of Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates has been emphasized over and over again by her partner. "There would be significantly less dimension within the scope and quality of the work this award is acknowledging today," Venturi tactfully chided the jury in his Pritzker acceptance speech, "and in the quality of our own design where Denise's input, creative and critical, is crucial."

Also knowledgeable about Scott Brown's collaborative role was Jacob Rothschild, a Pritzker juror since 1987. Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates' Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery in London was completed in 1991, and Rothschild, then the chairman of the museum's trustees, was eager to vindicate the controversial design, which he had championed. He campaigned vigorously for Venturi among his fellow jurors, and the American was duly awarded the Pritzker within weeks of the wing's opening. Rothschild has said that Scott Brown's participation was essential in bringing the Sainsbury to its successful conclusion, making the decision to ignore her a clear contradiction of his personal experience.

Scott Brown quite understandably boycotted the ceremony in Mexico City at which her partner was honored. "The Pritzker Prize hurt her very much," the couple's son told Andrea Gabor for her book Einstein's Wife: Work and Marriage in the Lives of Five Great TwentiethCentury Women. "It meant she would not get the same recognition as Bob, at least not while she is living." Indeed, considering the extent to which the Pritzker snub still rankles with Scott Brown and Venturi, one might ask why he did not reject the prize in protest. The answer is twofold. Until recent years, when their office began to attract a substantial amount of lucrative campus design, it was not very profitable, and the couple needed the award money. In the longer term, they felt it best to swallow their outrage because the prestige of the Pritzker would help them win future commissions, always a problem for architects whose workload has never equaled their high artistic status.

All twenty-one Pritzker winners thus far have been men, the jury's rationale being that in this male-dominated profession there are still few women old enough to have produced a body of built work significant enough to merit the prize. (A minimum of ten completed structures is considered necessary.) Defenders of the Pritzker maintain that its old-boys'-club nature will change once women educated after 1970--when female enrollment in American architecture schools began to skyrocket--enter the mature phase of their careers, which in architecture rarely occurs before the age of fifty.

But if so much effort has gone into making the Pritzker geographically representative, why has not a single woman thus far been named? I am not an ardent admirer of the work of the Milanese architect Gae Aulenti--best known for her conversions of old structures into new museums, including the misconceived Musee d'Orsay of 1980-86 in Paris and the more successful Palazzo Grassi of 1986 in Venice--but she is certainly more worthy than many of the Pritzker's recipients. Perhaps the fact that Aulenti's largest schemes are renovations and remodelings rather than from-the-ground-up structures has militated against her. Yet adaptive re-use is one of the major issues in contemporary architecture (and a specialty of architects in Italy, where there is little opportunity to erect entirely new public buildings), and so a convincing case could be made for Aulenti on that account alone.

The larger question, however, is not who has been awarded the Pritzker Prize, but whether this is really the best way to laud the makers of architecture and to increase awareness of the art. Architecture, like filmmaking, is an essentially collaborative medium. Although the principal architect in a firm may indeed function much as a movie director does, and may even be the auteur of a scheme despite the participation of many others in bringing it to completion, it is often fundamentally unfair to single out one member of an architectural office, as the Venturi-Scott Brown debacle demonstrated. In a world ever more in the thrall of celebrity and the industries that feed on it, the Pritzker exacerbates this vulgar trend by encouraging the public to think of the architect as a heroic loner, like Howard Roark, the cartoonish protagonist of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead.

Local pressures can also play a hidden role in determining who wins the Pritzker. Each year the award is presented in a different city at a landmark of architectural significance (and with a Pritzker-owned hotel in the vicinity). The 1989 ceremony honoring Frank Gehry, which I attended, was held at Taido-ji, an eighth-century Buddhist temple in the ancient Japanese capital of Nara. It was an impressive but curious affair, not least for the astonishing remarks delivered by Kenzo Tange, winner of the award two years earlier. With all the charm of a snapping turtle, Tange denounced American cultural imperialism in general and expressed puzzlement at Gehry's work in particular. Tange allowed that at least the new laureate could learn much from the architecture of Japan. The first words uttered by the nonplussed Gehry to his family afterward were, "Was that an insult?"

According to Gehry's account at the time, he and the Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta (a Pritzker juror from 1985 to 1993) had asked their local hosts to arrange for them to see the buildings of Tadao Ando, based in nearby Osaka and beginning to be touted as his country's most promising younger architect for works such as his powerful Cavern of the Light of 1987-89 in Ibaraki. The Japanese demurred, explaining that by right of seniority, the next Japanese recipient after Tange would have to be Fumihiko Maki (a well-connected modernist who was a Pritzker juror from 1985 to 1988), and only after Maki could the junior Ando even be considered. To do otherwise, they implied, would be a fatal diplomatic gaffe. And this is precisely what happened when Maki was chosen in 1993, and Ando followed him in 1995, both during Gehry's two-year tenure as a juror.

In her introduction to The Pritzker Prize, Martha Thorne, associate curator of architecture at the Art Institute of Chicago, accompanies her discussion of today's major architectural awards with a dizzying litany of the small group of architects who have won several of them in various and overlapping combinations. Leading the tally is Richard Meier, who was given the Pritzker in 1984, the RIBA Gold Medal in 1987, and both Japan's Praemium Imperiale and the AIA Gold Medal in 1997. Is Richard Meier, therefore, the greatest living architect?

Not at all. His highly proficient, thoroughly acceptable mode of classical modernism merely makes him an ideal, unobjectionable prizewinner. More than anything else, architectural award panels want to be seen as having picked an obvious winner. This tendency leads to the further promotion of the cult of personality (always a problem in architecture) by honoring architects who have already been honored. As J. Carter Brown, chairman of the Pritzker jury since its inception, writes in the new catalog, "Originally we as a jury were concerned that we might run out of superstars as the prize went on year after year." Brown seems unaware that he has made a very damning admission.

A far more equitable and meaningful approach has been adopted by the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, established in 1977 by the spiritual leader of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims to encourage higher standards of building in the Islamic world. Citations are given not to architects but to specific works, which include individual buildings as well as urban planning and historic preservation schemes, and even infrastructure. Nominated entries are first vetted by a technical screening committee to ensure that they are functionally sound, whereupon a second jury makes its final selections (which have ranged between five and eleven projects per award cycle) on aesthetic grounds, and decides how the $500,000 prize money is to be allocated among the winners.

This eminently judicious but timeconsuming evaluation process is reflected in the fact that the Aga Khan Awards are given only once every three years. By placing the emphasis on a diverse range of architecture--each group of winners typically encompasses many different kinds of buildings, budgets, and locales--rather than on the architects themselves, the Aga Khan Award transcends the vacuous celebrity-mongering that is now as rampant in architecture as it is in the culture at large.

Two decades after the inception of the Pritzker Prize, one may reasonably question whether the small fortune spent in lionizing architects has been worth it. Each year, hundreds of thousands of dollars go toward transporting jury members--who currently include the magnates Gianni Agnelli and Jacob Rothschild, the architectural journalists Ada Louise Huxtable and Toshio Nakamura, the architect Jorge Silvetti, and J. Carter Brown--and other Pritzker functionaries to visit the works of nominees. As Huxtable rather haughtily observed, "We go to see the buildings because the buildings can't come to see us." Or, in the fond reminiscence of Bill N. Lacy, the executive director of the prize:

We would ride in numerous vehicles to see two dozen buildings by architects from Italy, Switzerland, the U.S.A., Finland, Spain, and the Netherlands. This demanding tour would include a dramatic snowstorm in Helsinki, a riotous celebration of Carnevale in Basel, motorboat rides on the canals of Venice and Amsterdam to approach key buildings from the water, and side trips to spectacular classics such as the restored Chiesa dei Miracoli in Venice and in the Netherlands the famous Schroder house by Rietveld, a masterful city hall by Dudok, and the Educatorium by Rem Koolhaas.

It all sounds like a great deal of fun.

But what if those lavish travel and entertainment funds--plus the considerable expense of the annual Pritzker presentation ceremony and the program's public relations apparatus--were devoted instead to activities beyond the mere trumpeting of the winners' names? Even the rare exception of the current exhibition and its catalog amounts to little more than a self-congratulatory celebration of the Pritzker's cachet. Neither the show nor the book advances any ideas beyond the debatable notion of the recipients' excellence.

Again in contrast, the high-minded and effective educational component of the Aga Khan Award has had a demonstrable effect in improving the quality of Islamic architecture during the same period that the Pritzker has merely stoked the global celebrity machine. The more intelligently conceived and thoughtfully administered Aga Khan Award seeks not so much to spotlight first-rate architecture as to suggest how it might be emulated, and thereby puts the narcissistic Pritzker Prize to shame. Surely it would be a far better use of the resources provided by the Pritzker family to support exhibitions, lectures, and publications that could engage a broad public audience in the cause of architecture.

In these times of reduced funding for the arts, museum shows on architecture are less numerous than they once were, and many worthwhile exhibitions are unable to travel beyond their organizing institutions for lack of sponsorship. The publication of serious books on architecture has fallen off during the 1990s, as even university presses turn to more profitable subjects. In failing to do more than publicize individual architects, the Pritzker Prize has succeeded only in placing its winners on a very costly and visible pedestal. For all the Pritzker's noble intentions (and Nobel pretensions), its twenty-year record seems less a milestone than a millstone.

--Martin Filler

By Martin Filler

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//article/books-and-arts/eyes-the-prize