How Any Architect Should Win A Prize

Who determines why an architect wins an award? Objective decision makers, media kingmakers, or friends of the architect?

When the words “award-winning” are used to describe an architect, as with most professions, they signify talent. For some, an award bestowed on an architect is a symbol of his or her hard work, perseverance, dedication, and commitment to improving the profession. For others who may take a more cynical view, it is evidence of a network of friends in high places, media strategies, favours returned, or favours to be repaid later.

Regardless of how enigmatic the process of selecting architects for awards can sometimes seem, awards that are properly adjudicated distinguish architects from the rest of the field. Few awards are as prestigious as the Pritzker Architecture Prize, given to a living architect or firm that has consistently made significant contributions to humanity through architecture. Selecting a Pritzker-winner is an arduous process that involves focusing on how the work of an architect has affected the people it serves.

Originally launched in 1979 as a way to increase awareness of architecture and inspire creativity among architects, in the last ten years the Pritzker has shifted its focus to honor those whose work has made a positive impact on humanity. Architects whose work transcends physical projects and increases the dignity of those who come in contact with their work. What the winning architect receives is more than just a bronze medallion, a shower of favourable news articles, and $100,000 US, but the overall knowledge that their work matters and that it is making a difference.

Bicentennial Children's Park in Santiago Chile by 2016 Laureate Alejandro Aravena_Photo  ©Eugeni Pons_

Bicentennial Children’s Park in Santiago Chile by 2016 Laureate Alejandro Aravena_Photo ©Eugeni Pons

Cardboard Cathedral in Christchurch New Zealand by 2014 Laureate Shigeru Ban_Photo © Bridgit Anderson

Cardboard Cathedral in Christchurch New Zealand by 2014 Laureate Shigeru Ban_Photo © Bridgit Anderson

“It [the Pritzker] is looking at a body of work that embodies the art of architecture, and it has to have some contribution to society,” says Martha Thorne, Executive Director of the Pritzker Architecture Prize. “At times, the focus could be on sustainability, disaster relief, housing, and other times the focus is on advancing the discipline or innovations.” There is no one thing that makes an architect deserving of the Pritzker, and keeping the focus open to change reflects the diversity of issues facing our built environment.

To avoid myopic thinking, juries need to come from various backgrounds, ways of thinking, and experiences. The best juries often consist of professionals from many regions of the world, who can bring multiple perspectives as to what qualifies as great architecture, outside of the Euro-American centric opinion. This is why the cultural and gender make up of award juries in many fields is increasingly being called into scrutiny.

“Juries are much more collaborative today than they were in the past,” explains Thorne. “There is a desire in juries to listen to every voice around the table and to try to have a clear message that everyone can agree upon. And I think that has to do with globalization, and from the fact that we are seeing different ways of approaching architecture from different places.”

El Petit Comte Kindergarten in Besalú Spain by 2017 Laureates RCR Arquitectes Photo © Eugeni Pons

El Petit Comte Kindergarten in Besalú Spain by 2017 Laureates RCR Arquitectes Photo © Eugeni Pons

Bell-lloc Winery in Palamós, Spain by 2017 Laureates RCR Arquitectes Photo ©Eugeni Pons

Bell-lloc Winery in Palamós, Spain by 2017 Laureates RCR Arquitectes Photo ©Eugeni Pons

Through architecture websites and social media, we have access to more information about architects than ever in history. This is a challenge for juries, who must sift through flashy imagery, over-parroted press releases, and bombastic individualism to find architects who have a track record of producing work that is beneficial to society. One or two community centres in a body of work full of luxury condo towers does not cut it.

“In Pritzker Prize,” says Thorne, “personality doesn’t enter in the equation. It’s the work and the service to humanity that counts.”

Balkrishna Doshi, the 2018 Pritzker Prize winner, was honored because of the impact that his work has had in India, and the influence it continues to have in the country. He began studying architecture the same year that his native India gained independence in 1947. After having worked under Le Corbusier in Paris, he continued working for the Swiss-born French architect in Chandigarh and Ahmedabad in 1954. In 1966, he founded the School of Architecture and Planning in Ahmedabad, now known as CEPT University. Through is firm, Vastushilpa Consultants, he has designed over 100 projects, inspired by his deep reverence and knowledge of Indian culture. Projects that enhanced the dignity of average citizens, built communities, and became exemplars of great Indian architecture. Doshi’s work was designed for the people, not other architects, magazines, and online media.

Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology in Ahmedabad, India by 2018 Laureate Balkrishna Doshi Photo © VSF

Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology in Ahmedabad, India by 2018 Laureate Balkrishna Doshi Photo © VSF

The temptation with all the media and technology that we are exposed to is to be lazy. This can be damaging for award juries. The advantage of having jurors from different countries disappears if the jurors never meet each other in person to discuss the work. What is even worse, is if jurors do not even visit a project. Architecture is best experienced in person, where you can get a real sense of the work.

Thorne sees the access to media and technology as a positive, but still believes that nothing beats the in-person experience of being on a jury. “I don’t like juries that are online. I don’t think that is a good way. There is no dialogue and dialogue is very important,” she emphasizes.

“It is so important for the selection committee to visit the building. There’s a lot of great photographers out there, but a beautiful building in a photograph may not work well in reality. It is important not to be seduced by glossy images, but really understand a project and a building through personal experience.”

Words: Phil Roberts

 

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