“The Nobel Prize in Architecture.” “The profession’s highest honor.” These are some of the terms used to describe the Pritzker Prize. One day before the 2018 Pritzker Prize winner is to be revealed, ArchDaily’s editors discuss whether the prize still lives up to its hype.
The Pritzker Prize was founded in 1979 by Jay and Cindy Pritzker. It is awarded every year "to honor a living architect or architects whose built work demonstrates a combination of those qualities of talent, vision and commitment, which has produced consistent and significant contributions to humanity and the built environment through the art of architecture."
The Pritzker has been awarded 39 times to date, and the winners come from all over. Last year, the accolade was given to Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigem, and Ramón Vilalta of RCR Arquitectes—the first trio to win the award. In 2016, the prize was given to Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, and in 2015, to the German architect Frei Otto.
These announcements undoubtedly cause some furor every year. No female representation in architecture? Another starchitect?—or, on the other hand—who is this architect, and why did they deserve to win?
Our editors discuss the point of the Pritzker Prize today.
Has the Pritzker lost its relevance today?
Becky Quintal: My feeling is that the Pritzker is suffering from a bit of an identity crisis. It’s what makes it difficult to predict what is coming next. I suppose that could be intentional and perhaps even good? But I have a nagging feeling that it’s not intentional.
Rory Stott: I think that it seems like, internally at least, they are worried about their relevance.
Nicolás Valencia: I agree. I think the Prize is very relevant, but they're facing an identity crisis. It's hard to see what the connection is behind the latest five winners.
Patrick Lynch: I agree that the criteria for selection seem to have changed drastically in recent years. However, it is undeniable that the designation still holds more clout than any other award in the architecture world. It is the only prize that projects and architects regularly use as a qualifier i.e. "Pritzker Prize-winner."
Rory Stott: It's good to see that they are actively working on it, even if they don't seem to have a clear direction right now. It's also one of the only architectural awards that can have a significant presence in the non-architecture world, so it's hardly dead and buried.
Patrick Lynch: The reputation of the jury will also ensure it remains relevant.
Nicolás Valencia: One of the things that makes it difficult to predict is that almost every single architect with built projects can be nominated. It's a wide open call. If I go back ten years, when I was a freshman in college, we used to think of the Pritzker as a lifetime achievement award. As for Pat's comment that "the reputation of the jury will also ensure it remains relevant," the thing is the jury itself doesn't always seem very related to architecture—I'm looking at you, Stephen Breyer & Ratan N. Tata.
Patrick Lynch: When looking over past winners, it seems to me there have been 2 different "types" it has been awarded to: either as a capstone honoring an innovative and wide-reaching career (Frei Otto, many others), or as a jumping off point for architects whose work was largely theoretical (Zaha). RCR doesn't fill either of those criteria.
Becky Quintal: Exactly. And honestly, I never received a satisfactory justification for that choice.
Rory Stott: But I don't think an increased focus on mid-career architects is a bad thing, personally. Wang Shu, Aravena, even RCR are people who have proven themselves to an extent already, but still have a lot of potential to do more, especially with the increased attention brought by being a Pritzker Prize winner.
Patrick Lynch: One positive thing that selecting RCR did was open up the award to a group of more than 2 architects.
Rory Stott: True. Though I definitely thought it odd that at the time that the Pritzker insisted that it was being awarded to the three individuals, and asked the media to avoid calling them RCR Arquitectes.
Becky Quintal: But I think that’s because it broke with what they had done in the past and they needed to be consistent.
Rory Stott: That's symptomatic of them needing to reckon with the individualism of the award in the past which is no longer fashionable.
Becky Quintal: I think the most relevant thing the Pritzker can do today is to consistently choose architects that are practicing in the vein of Aravena and Shigeru Ban.
Nicolás Valencia: A funny thing happened in Chile after Aravena won the Pritzker in 2016. Before that prize, architects used to complain that the Pritzker Prize was limited to first world-born, old architects with tons of built projects. After that year, architects started to complain the Pritzker jury was not focused on awarding the architects with tons of built projects.
Rory Stott: But Nico, couldn't the same be said of Wang Shu? Or do you think it just took a few years for people to catch up with that criticism?
Nicolás Valencia: Well yes, sure. I think it was a hypocritical reaction from Latin America. I didn't see that kind of criticism when Toyo Ito won, for example. Also, if we look at the big picture, the last "starchitect" who won the Pritzker Prize was Toyo Ito in 2013.
Becky Quintal: Well if this year’s winner isn’t a “starchitect” I guess it’s safe to say that’s no longer their target?
Patrick Lynch: So the award lists its purpose as "To honor a living architect or architects whose built work demonstrates a combination of those qualities of talent, vision, and commitment, which has produced consistent and significant contributions to humanity and the built environment through the art of architecture." The part that stands out to me is "significant contributions to humanity."
Rory Stott: To me, that's vague. Especially when you consider it was written (I believe) long before their current trajectory. We could have a whole separate discussion over what the phrase "significant contributions to humanity" really means!
Nicolás Valencia: The Pritzker's purpose is so open that anyone could be nominated. So now the issue is we have a huge queue of architects who should win the Pritzker.
Rory Stott: I agree!
Patrick Lynch: I agree that it is a bit vague, but it does explain why they've tried to select architects whose work targets a spectrum of cultures and social classes.
Rory Stott: But at the same time, that's why people seem so confused about what their purpose is. The problem, I think, is that these changes are being directed by the jurors, who are fickle. For example, a lot of people commented that it can't be a coincidence that Frei Otto won in Richard Rogers' first year on the jury. A better approach would be for the Pritzker's organizers to define a new direction that's more clearly expressed than their old mission statement.
Patrick Lynch: There is a worry that it can be perceived as a "good ole boys" club. I personally believe the widening of its criteria has been a good thing – I want to see more architecture from unexpected places, and give underserved voices a chance to be heard.
Rory Stott: I think maybe all that's happened is they overcorrected in that direction.
Nicolás Valencia: Another thing. I think if you were part of the jury, you shouldn't win the Pritzker Prize.
Becky Quintal: That is interesting. What about former winners as jurors?
Nicolás Valencia: I get the logic, but it looks suspicious as well. It's the "good ole boys club" idea that Pat just referred to.
Rory Stott: So are we saying that being able to win and being on the jury should be mutually exclusive, for life? Especially after you criticized jurors who weren't architects earlier, that seems like a challenging suggestion. How would you distinguish between an architect who is "prize material" and one who is "juror material"?
Nicolás Valencia: I just think it's one of the things that doesn't sound good when you check who's on the jury. As far as I know, you can't win an Oscar for best actor and then be a part of the jury. You can name jurors from outside the discipline, of course. But if what you want is "significant contributions to humanity and the built environment through the art of architecture," why not make it big? Bring in a more multi-disciplinary jury? As for who is "prize material" and who is "juror material"? It's a Pritzker decision. They know better than anyone!
Patrick Lynch: Should we maybe finish by each sharing who we'd like to see win this year and why?
Rory Stott: That's a big question! I'm not even sure if I have an answer.
Patrick Lynch: [Laughs] you can name more than one if you'd like.
Becky Quintal: I don’t have a particular architect in mind. I just hope it’s not the same kind of “artistic” practice as RCR. I find it hard to describe what kind of practice they are though.
Rory Stott: Why don't you go first, Patrick? [laughs]
Patrick Lynch: I will! While I'd be very happy with Kére as a new perspective or Steven Holl as a lifetime achievement, I think that awarding Diller Scofidio + Renfro would help to rationalize some of the last few picks as well: they come from a unique background (exhibition design), they consist of a diverse trio of partners from different perspectives and their work is innovative at all scales.
Rory Stott: I agree with Francis Kéré, I think he would be a popular choice for most people. And who would begrudge the award finally going to Steven Holl? But I guess if I had to pick someone who fits the DS+R mold of someone very well-known but also fitting their new trajectory, I would offer Jeanne Gang. I think some of her more recent projects such as the Polis-Station proposal and her Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership place her in the "significant contributions to humanity" conversation.
Becky Quintal: I just hope they reward an architect who is generous—in their work and how open they are to sharing it.
Nicolás Valencia: Checking out the last five winners, besides Toyo Ito, it seems like the Pritzker Prize is awarding architects who send a huge message to the society. So, a female Mexican architect would be a strong message for the First World.
Rory Stott: Tatiana Bilbao?
Nicolás Valencia: Maybe...
About the editors
Becky Quintal is the Head of Content at ArchDaily, where she oversees the publication of ArchDaily and its global sites in English, Spanish, Portuguese and Chinese. Prior to assuming her role at ArchDaily, Becky worked as an editor for OMA/AMO, BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group), Reiser + Umemoto and the Princeton University School of Architecture.
Patrick Lynch is ArchDaily's News Editor. Prior to this position, he was an editorial intern for ArchDaily while working full time as an assistant for a watercolor artist. Patrick holds a B. Arch degree from Penn State University and has spent time studying under architect Paolo Soleri. He is currently based in New York City.
Rory Stott has been ArchDaily's Managing Editor since July 2014, after starting as an ArchDaily intern. He has a BA in Architecture from Newcastle University, and is particularly interested in how overlooked elements of architectural culture—from the media, to competitions, to procurement processes—can alter the designs we end up with.
Nicolás Valencia is Editor at Archdaily en Español. He graduated with a degree in architecture from Universidad de Chile in 2013. In 2017, he co-authored ‘Idea Política Pública’ (Policy Idea).