Is the Pritzker Prize Still Relevant Today?

Rural House designed by RCR Arquitectes. Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigem, and Ram贸n Vilalta of RCR Arquitectes won the Pritzker last year. Image Courtesy of RCR Arquitectes

Rural House designed by RCR Arquitectes. Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigem, and Ram贸n Vilalta of RCR Arquitectes won the Pritzker last year. Image Courtesy of RCR Arquitectes

The Nobel Prize in Architecture.鈥 鈥The profession鈥檚 highest honor.鈥 These are some of the terms used to describe the Pritzker Prize. One day before the 2018 Pritzker Prize winner聽is to be revealed, ArchDaily鈥檚 editors discuss whether the prize still lives up to its hype.

The Pritzker Prize was founded in 1979 by Jay A. Pritzker and his wife Cindy. 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聽Ram贸n Vilalta of RCR Arquitectes鈥攖he 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?鈥攐r, on the other hand鈥攚ho 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:聽My feeling is that the Pritzker is suffering from a bit of an identity crisis. It鈥檚 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鈥檚 not intentional.

Rory Stott:聽I think that it seems like, internally at least, they are worried about their relevance.

Nicol谩s Valencia: I agree. I think the Prize is very relevant, but they’re facing an identity crisis. It’s hard to see what the聽connection is behind the latest five winners.

Patrick Lynch:聽I agree that the criteria for selection seem聽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:聽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.聽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:聽The reputation of the jury will also ensure it remains relevant.

Nicol谩s Valencia:聽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.聽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鈥擨’m looking at you,聽Stephen Breyer聽&聽Ratan N. Tata.

Patrick Lynch:聽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:聽Exactly.聽And honestly, I never received a satisfactory justification for that choice.

Rory Stott:聽But I don’t think an increased focus on mid-career architects is a bad thing, personally.聽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:聽One positive thing that selecting RCR did was open up the award to a group of more than 2 architects.

Rory Stott:聽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:聽But I think that鈥檚 because it broke with what they had done in the past and they needed to be consistent.

Rory Stott:聽That’s symptomatic of them needing to reckon with the individualism of the award in the past which is no longer fashionable.

Becky Quintal:聽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.

Nicol谩s Valencia:聽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:聽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?

Nicol谩s Valencia:聽Well yes, sure. I think it was a hypocritical reaction from Latin America. I didn’t see that kind of criticism when聽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:聽Well if this year鈥檚 winner isn鈥檛 a 鈥渟tarchitect鈥 I guess it鈥檚 safe to say that鈥檚 no longer their target?聽

Patrick Lynch:聽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.”聽The part that stands out to me is “significant contributions to humanity.

Rory Stott:聽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!

Nicol谩s Valencia: The聽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:聽I agree!

Patrick Lynch:聽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.

Nicol谩s Valencia:聽Maybe that’s why they have this identity crisis. It’s inevitable to compare聽RCR with Tschumi,聽Aravena with Libeskind, and so on…

Rory Stott:聽But at the same time, that’s why people seem so confused about what their purpose is.聽The problem, I think, is that these changes are being directed by the jurors, who are fickle.聽For example, a lot of people commented that it can’t be a聽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 鈥 I want to see more architecture from unexpected places, and give underserved voices a chance to be heard.

Rory聽Stott:聽I think maybe all that’s happened is they overcorrected in that direction.

Nicol谩s Valencia: Another thing. I think if you were part of the jury, you shouldn’t win the Pritzker Prize.

Becky Quintal: That聽is interesting. What about former winners as jurors?

Nicol谩s Valencia:聽I get the logic, but it looks suspicious as well.聽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”?

Nicol谩s Valencia:聽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:聽Should we maybe finish by each sharing who we’d like to see win this year and why?

Rory Stott:聽That’s a big question! I’m not even sure if I have an answer.

Patrick Lynch:聽[Laughs] you can name more than one if you’d like.

Becky Quintal:聽I don鈥檛 have a particular architect in mind. I just hope it鈥檚 not the same kind of 鈥渁rtistic鈥 practice as RCR. I find it hard to describe what kind of practice they are though.

Rory Stott:聽Why don’t you go first, Patrick? [laughs]

Patrick Lynch:聽I will! While I’d be very happy with聽K茅re as a new perspective or聽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:聽I agree with Francis K茅r茅, 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聽place her in the “significant contributions to humanity” conversation.

Becky Quintal:聽I just hope they reward an architect who is generous鈥攊n their work and how open they are to sharing it.

Nicol谩s Valencia:聽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:聽Tatiana Bilbao?

Nicol谩s Valencia:聽Maybe…

About the editors

Becky Quintal聽is the聽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.聽

Patrick Lynchis聽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聽has been聽ArchDaily’s Managing Editor since July 2014, after starting as an ArchDaily intern. He has a BA in Architecture from Newcastle University, and聽is particularly interested in how overlooked elements of architectural culture鈥攆rom the media, to competitions, to procurement processes鈥攃an alter the designs we end up with.

Nicol谩s Valencia聽is聽Editor at Archdaily en Espa帽ol. He graduated with a degree in聽architecture from Universidad de Chile in 2013. In 2017, he co-authored 鈥業dea Pol铆tica P煤blica鈥 (Policy Idea).