Pritzker Prize: Denise Scott Brown should have won in '91
Is the Pritzker Prize bold enough to acknowledge past mistakes? wonders Rory Olcayto
There’s no other prize in architecture quite as grand as the Pritzker. Granted, the bronze medal winners receive is not a patch on RIBA’s gold one, which rewards the same group of people - starchitects - for much the same thing: their contribution to world architecture. But if you win the American prize, as Toyo Ito did this week, you get $100,000 as well. That’s still a hefty wedge today, even if the sum has remained the same since Philip Johnson bagged the inaugural prize in 1979.
Legend has it that the prize is a kind of lost Nobel, on which it is self-consciously modelled. The Pritzker family, which developed the Hyatt hotels, chose the field of architecture not only because of its business interests but also because architecture was a creative endeavour not included in the Nobel prizes. It has played upon this status ever since, using prestigious locations for its presentations, such as The White House, the Kimbell Art Museum and the Palace of Versailles, and by inviting high-profile guests to the ceremonies. Bill Clinton, King Juan Carlos of Spain and Czech poet-president Václav Havel have all attended in the past.
However, with the exception of last year’s winner, China’s Wang Shu, few consider the prize to be provocative and citations are often clichéd. This year jury member (and Laureate) Glen Murcutt states: ‘For nearly 40 years, Toyo Ito has pursued excellence.’ Another judge, Alejandro Aravena, is bolder, but just as flat: ‘His buildings are complex, yet his high degree of synthesis means that his works attain a level of calmness, which ultimately allows the inhabitants to freely develop their life and activities in them.’ Elsewhere, the citation notes, that Ito ‘strives for architecture that is fluid’.
The Pritzker on occasion is controversial, without meaning to be. In 1989 there were two winners, Oscar Niemeyer and SOM’s Gordon Bunshaft, who actually nominated himself. In The Pritzker Architecture Prize: The First Twenty Years, Pritzker Prize executive director Bill Lacy writes: ‘I received a call from an anonymous gentleman: “How do I nominate someone for the Pritzker Architecture Prize?” he asked. “You tell me his or her name,” I said.”That’s it? You don’t have to fill out forms, list accomplishments, submit a portfolio and letters of references? You don’t have to be recommended?” he asked incredulously. “No, just tell me the name, and I’ll do the rest,” I said. “If the person is eligible for consideration, I will gather the material and present it to the jury for consideration.” A pause.”Then I would like to recommend myself.” “And your name, sir?” I asked. “I am Gordon Bunshaft,” he replied.’
The excuse for awarding two laureates was that it marked 10 years of the prize, but there must have been other factors at play. Bunshaft died two years later, suggesting a ‘now or never’ decision, even if Niemeyer had already been picked. (Although there may have been a sense then, too, that Niemeyer, a smoker, was not going to be around much longer either). An essay by jury member Ada Louise Huxtable, which concluded that it ‘is appropriate to recognize a lifetime of work, while the life, and the work, can still be celebrated’ pretty much made this case on behalf of both recipients.
Two years later, there should have been two winners but instead there was only one. The jury honoured Robert Venturi but not his partner, Denise Scott Brown. There’s still time to acknowledge Scott Brown as 1991’s joint winner. Come on, Pritzker, sort it out!