The coveted title “Pritzker Prize Laureate” is more or less synonymous today with the label “star-architect,” a term I loathe and that most of those described as such will probably find irritating and embarrassing. And for good reason. Stardom in the sense of celebrity does not help the cause of architecture. Wang Shu’s wife, Lu Wenyu, said as much when she asked not to be named as co-laureate with her husband. In an interview with El Pais, she remarked, “I’m happy to be able to do architecture that I believe helps our towns and cities to be better. I’m convinced that to talk about this awakens interest in others – not being famous.”
Of course the Pritzker Prize does not set out to create a school of architects famous for being famous, but to recognise, celebrate and support talent, persistence and perhaps a unique contribution to the cause of architecture. The prize winners each deserve that recognition whether we agree or not with the choice of an individual recipient.
The fame culture is generated not so much by altruistic cultural institutions, but largely by a star-struck media wanting to create a cast of famous characters to write about. There is, of course, pressure from editors to do so, too, fearing perhaps that anything else might lose readers hungry for celebrity culture. Of course, the critic gains a kind of minor celebrity status, too, through association with this “star” culture.
As a result, the Pritzker Prize makes it easier for media and patrons alike to feel confident that they are dealing with nothing less than truly world-leading architects. In this way, the Pritzker is like a guarantee of star quality and of the potential for buildings associated with prize winners to have a particularly high profile. The danger here is that the prize label means that people don’t need to look so hard at what is good in terms of architecture and specific buildings any more: they can rely on received opinion instead.
This is where the Pritzker Prize begins to perpetuate an environment that is unhealthy to architecture: too strong a divide is created between winners and non-winners of the same calibre. The fame game itself – even if unintentionally – is the ultimate winner. Sought-after commissions, and other opportunities perhaps better suited to other candidates, may well go to Pritzker Prize winners, helping to reinforce the trend of “designer buildings” in much the same vein as designer label consumer goods and products. Who tends to become more important than how or why. Politicians and entrepreneurs are particularly susceptible to this type of personality game.
This is one of the many challenges architecture faces today. The prize winners are not to blame. However, the Pritzker Prize should perhaps reach out in other ways to communicate what it sees as the contemporary challenges of architecture. Its outreach could be more varied, with less focus given to whether we agree or not with the selection of a particular laureate. Instead it could include a Pritzker symposium or book that reflects not so much on the winner but on the matters the jury are discussing at any point in time. The Pritzker has the gravitas to do this, since the committee perhaps does have the desire to counteract the star architect phenomenon it has inadvertently fostered.
The choice of Shigeru Ban has been widely seen as a way for the Pritzker to highlight and laud the social and humanitarian cause of architecture. One could argue that this is a step towards a selection process seeking to make the architect’s role in society more widely relevant, a move away from “star architecture”. Perhaps this is true, yet I would not like to see the Pritzker Prize become overly politicised. There are so many facets of architecture, from aesthetic to technological to anthropological. And, of course, social concerns that can be celebrated, although it is an impossible task to say which of these is the most important. The prize should be communicated in a way that highlights the collective ambitions of future architecture at its best – with the winners, each in their own right, adding to the definition of what architecture could and should be.
Laura Iloniemi has been working in architectural PR for over fifteen years. She wrote a book on the subject -Is It All About Image- published by Academy & Wiley. Iloniemi studied architectural philosophy at The University Cambridge and arts promotion at The Ecole du Louvre. Follow her @BiennaleBooks