Award Politics


Architecture’s top award is the Pritzker Prize, as we all know. Often referred to in the media as the “Nobel prize of architecture” (even though it was founded by a hotel magnate, not a respected scientist), the Pritzker generates huge buzz every year. The curious thing about this prize, however, is that it is not awarded to a building, but to an architectural career. In other fields, it’s work that is awarded: an important scientific discovery, a great work of art, a poignant film. At the Academy Awards in Hollywood, all those Oscar statuettes are awarded to work done on particular films, the only exception being the Academy Honorary Award. The Pritzker “Academy” hands out its only prize as an “Honorary Award”, without any prizes whatsoever for specific work. This makes the prize much more susceptible to machination. One recent year, the Pritzker went to someone who had previously served as a member of its very jury. Before that, it went to one half (male) of a celebrated architectural partnership but not to the other (female…surprised?). It appears, from the outside, that the Pritzker Prize has no clearly defined set of rules.

Such lack of structure (in an architecture prize, no less!) has unfortunate side effects. Last week, for example, the Catalan government’s ministry of culture announced that RCR will direct the Catalan Pavilion of the next Venice Architecture Biennale, citing their recent winning of the Pritzker Prize as “objective” justification for skipping the usual competition process. And this is a government that likes to portray itself as an example of democratic transparency vis-à-vis the corrupt mafia governing Spain. If “Spain is different“, it’s looking increasingly like Catalonia is no different (pardon me: I’m veering off topic).

Fortunately, the Pritzker is not the only game in town. While the E. U. Mies Award may not generate as much buzz, it has a much clearer set of rules, and it is awarded to a building. As in any competition, a jury is assembled, a selection process is undertaken based on architects’ submissions, shortlists are made, and buildings selected as finalists are actually visited by the jury (wasn’t it Mies, after all, who famously said “God is in the details”?). No competition process is ever perfectly democratic and objective, of course, but at least the Mies Award has been consistent throughout its three-decade existence in awarding architectural quality over architectural notoriety. For example, this year’s E.U. Mies Award goes to the revamp of a 1970s CIAM-inspired residential superblock situated in the outskirts of Amsterdam, by NL Architects and XVW Architectuur. Yes, housing. Yes, a refurbishment project. Not exactly the stuff of Pritzkers, is it? The only drawback to the E.U. Mies Award? It’s limited to Europe in its geographic scope.

Considering the changing political climate and the capacity of architecture to improve the environment we live in, the question that needs to be asked is: what should be rewarded in architecture? Should we reward careerists, or should we reward buildings that can serve as models for actually making a difference?

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