Problems with the Pritzker
On the morning of March 5th, the architecture world was breathlessly waiting for the recipient of the 2019 Pritzker Prize to be announced, or at least that is what the marketing editors of ArchDaily imagined to be the case. Having published no less than three articles on the topic since January of this year, the editors of ArchDaily had, in their quest for clicks, deftly answered in a resounding affirmative, the question they had posed in an article the day before last year’s announcement: “Is the Pritzker Prize Still Relevant Today?” After Arata Isozaki was announced as this year’s laureate, ArchDaily, Dezeen, and most of the various design blogs/hype machines went about the business of publishing brief “explainers” of Isozaki’s work and collections of the “Ten Isozaki Projects You Should Know;” respectively justifying Isozaki’s selection to their audiences, some of whom commented knowingly on the presumably negative reactions of architectural celeb-literati figures like Patrik Schumacher,1 or else presenting Isozaki to those who ostensibly were not familiar with him or his captivating work. A day later, the blogs had all moved on, back to posting the latest photogenic projects or polemical provocations, with Isozaki, the Japanese postmodernism of which he is a leading representative, and the discursive, technological movements in which he played a major role all but absent from their feeds.
Rather than lamenting this sort of media-spectacular, drive-by process of contemporary content-mill canonization, it is perhaps instead worth thinking about the ways in which architecture, architects, and history are imagined as autonomous and unambiguous entities of which the Pritzker Prize and its media coverage are symptomatic. Taking the Prize committee at its word that the “purpose” of the Prize is:
“To honor a living architect or architects whose built work demonstrates a combination of those ualities of talent, vision, and commitment, which has produced consistent and significant contributions to humanity and the built environment through the art of architecture”2
and not instead the prideful desire to garner positive media attention, enshrine a specific historical narrative, or play kingmaker. A number of questions present themselves: What constitutes “built work?” How are “contributions to humanity” defined? And, if the Prize can be awarded to architects (plural), why have only three out of the 42 Prizes been awarded to multiple collaborators, with the rest being overwhelmingly given to white men?
A deeper look into the personal histories of the laureates begins to answer some of these questions, most importantly by demonstrating the rather close-knit intellectual and design community of the prize recipients and jury, many of whom were friends or mentors of one another. This year’s winner, Isozaki, for example, was the student and collaborator of former winner, Kenzo Tange along with other former winners Fumihiko Maki and Toyo Ito, the latter of whom was the teacher of Kazuyo Sejima, a joint-winner with Ryue Nishizawa in 2010 and 2019 jury member. In addition, Isozaki was part of the intellectual circle involved with the introduction of post-structuralist theory into architecture discourse and an active participant in the ANY conferences organized by Cynthia Davidson and Peter Eisenman in the early 1990s, linking him to another coterie of laureates including Rafael Moneo, Tadao Ando, and Rem Koolhaas on top of his well-documented personal friendship with 1984 winner Richard Meier.
While none of this is to say that Isozaki is not an accomplished architect deserving of attention, what becomes clear in this network of relations is that what is being rewarded is not so much individual talent as successful participation in a very particular set of discourses and practices. Ironically, the awarding of the Pritzker to members of the same intellectual circle in fact speaks directly to the collaborative nature of architecture as both a conceptual and material endeavor. By consistently awarding the Prize to individuals, the Prize committee perpetuates the narrative of individual genius at the expense of engaging with the networks of knowledge, labor, and capital or particular social, economic, and political contexts that channel and are channeled into the collective undertaking of a project or its historicization. What this focus on the individual, especially in conjunction with the privileging of “built works,” also means is that a rather normative idea of what constitutes architect, architecture, and history, and “worthy” ones at that, is foregrounded, thereby foreclosing the telling of stories about alternative ways in which architectural knowledge can be used to produce “consistent and significant contributions to humanity.”3 Further, in light of the growing contemporary awareness of the enmeshment of architecture and history with capital and climate, the inherently political and contingent nature of aesthetics, which has long been understood as the criteria for these “significant contributions,” is no longer avoidable, with the projects of many laureates whitewashed as aesthetically pleasing on the one hand, while being profoundly detrimental to humanity through their exploitation of labor, astronomical costs, and carbon footprints on the other.
Returning to the blog posts, listicles, and data-mining reader polls that now accompany the yearly awarding of the Pritzker, it is easy to see how this aesthetic whitewashing and essentializing is accomplished. The hero images and laudatory blurbs about only a select few projects of a select few people from a select few firms within a select few forms of disciplinary practices that populate them leave little room for deep and critical engagement with why these hyper-specific selections matter, to whom, and why. Extracting individual architects and projects from their complex embeddedness in the world in order for them to discursively circulate, the media around the Prize operates as part of the broader disciplinary feedback mechanism that is the Prize itself. Broadcasting to the “architectural world” what it ought to pay attention to precisely by giving attention to it, the Pritzker is not an objective metric of architectural merit, but more a means of policing the boundaries of what constitutes architect, architecture, and history by delimiting the kinds of entities that can be addressed, how they are addressed, and whom they serve. But, the naming of the Prize after one of the wealthiest families in America, for whom the yearly $100,000 tax write-off of the Prize grant would appear as little more than a rounding error, should probably have given that away from the start, no?