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Going for Gold at the RIBA and the AIA

From the Architectural Review: William JR Curtis reflects on the medal winning success of Herman Hertzberger and Steven Holl

Whenever I wander into the RIBA headquarters on Portland Place, I cast an eye to the left in the lobby where the names
of the previous winners of the institute’s Royal Gold Medal winners are inscribed in stone. Along with the grand international names that one would expect − Aalto, Wright, Le Corbusier, Mies, Utzon, Niemeyer − there are the national names that one would also expect, such as Lasdun, Stirling and Foster − but there are also puzzling ommissions such as the Mexican architect Luis Barragán or, in our own time, another Mexican: Teodoro González de León, one of the few people to have mastered the problem of modern monumentality.

Anyone who has ever been on the jury for a major prize (and I have been on several), knows that things are not as simple as they seem and that the last minute debates can take strange turns. And in any case, awards need to be taken with a grain of salt. Whenever I hear the same old thing about the Pritzker Prize being the ‘Nobel Prize for Architecture’ I have the same reaction.

First of all, every Pritzker has produced at least some mediocre work. Secondly, the Nobel itself is not infallible, as anyone who follows the ins and outs of scientific and literary politics can tell you. As for the ‘Nobel Prize for Peace’, apparently that is sometimes awarded to people who make war.

Herman Hertzberger. Photo: RIBA

Plans for Hertzberger’s Old People’s Centre in Amsterdam. Published in The Architectural Reivew, February 1976

It was an interesting idea to award the Royal Gold Medal to Herman Hertzberger this time around, not only for the work itself (uneven in quality but guided by social conviction) but also for the values that it represents. The citation makes much of the life enhancing qualities of his buildings, the attention to scale, the interlocking of spaces for multiple use, the search for variety within standardisation and, in the end, the democratic attitude. The Centraal Beheer office complex in Apeldoorn (1967-72) surely illustrates the strengths and weaknesses.

on the inside a convivial warren of interconnected levels adapted to growth and change, materially modest but spatially rich. On the outside an abstraction of a hilltown or kasbah, yet curiously disconnected from its actual urban situation. Hertzberger’s debts to
Aldo van Eyck’s Orphanage 10 years earlier and to his notion of ‘labyrinthine clarity’ are obvious, but he also inherited a Dutch tradition of quiet modern architecture running back to JJP Oud and beyond.

You can still sense this continuity in the elegant anonymity of the Paswerk Housing in Haarlem (2000-2007). Maybe the jury wished to signal a reaction against the bling bling narcissism and excessive gestures of recent years? Here a little caution is necessary since at a larger scale Hertzberger seems to have picked up some of the viruses and formalist tricks of the time including ones from his noisier colleague Rem Koolhaas.

The American Institute of Architects’ selection of Steven Holl for its Gold Medal was probably more predictable. To his credit he has the spatial explorations of works like the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki (AR August 1998) which, however, also has problems dealing with its urban context − or the Herning Museum of Contemporary Art in Denmark, HEART (AR October 2009), which sits more comfortably on an open, grassy site and which owes more than a little to Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp.

The AIA citation goes on about Holl’s ‘rigorously exploratory theoretical approach’ and his ‘humanist approach to formal experimentation’ but here some reality checks are necessary. Holl is notorious for his pretentious mumblings derived from ‘phenomenology’ and his ‘humanism’ may be less apparent to the poor suffering inmates of that scaleless hulk the Simmons Hall Dormitory at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology. And what about respect for the dead and for the work which lives on after them?

I am referring, of course, to Holl’s project for the Glasgow School of Art, which is so horrendously out of scale with Mackintosh’s masterpiece: a spiritless diagram of a building wrapped in Holl’s usual clichés of iceberg glass. Last word from Mark Twain: ‘Everything has its limits − iron cannot be educated into gold’.

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