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Martha Thorne: ‘The more we showcase the work of women, the more it will help society’

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Pritzker Prize chief Martha Thorne talks to the AJ about the arrival of new jury member Benedetta Tagliabue, the Denise Scott Brown scandal and why the inequality pendulum needs pushing harder

How does the Pritzker Prize draw up a list of architects for consideration?
There is a double nominations process. Any architect from anywhere in the world can suggest a name to be considered. I also write about 250 letters and emails a year to architects, academics, museum directors, former laureates – a wide range of people. I ask their opinion. By having two groups we get a really varied list of nominations. This process gives us a wealth of names and diversity in terms of geography and approach to architecture.

How do the judges pick a Pritzker winner?
From the nominations, I draw up a list of names for consideration. That forms the basis of the judges’ decision, which they make through dialogue. They discuss issues of architecture, candidates and what they represent. There is not a points system or a voting process. It is about looking for the best candidate or candidates that express the message the judges feel is most relevant at that point in time.

The Pritzker jury has been predominantly male. Is the move to bring in Benedetta Tagliabue part of efforts to change this?
If we look at the jury over the years, it has evolved. According to the prize’s guidelines we can have between five and nine members. In the first years it was usually at the low end, but in the past 10 years it has become more numerous. There is now, more than ever, an effort to have diversity. We also look to geography for diversity. We try to have jurors from all over the world. They are our ambassadors, and our eyes and ears looking at what is going on. We try to have a range of professions, from practising architects, to business people, to clients, to wider academics. There have been times in the past when we have had two women on the jury.

Ada Huxtable was probably a very influential juror because of her talent

The voices on the jury are tremendously independent. Ada Louise Huxtable was on the jury for many years. I can imagine that when she spoke with such knowledge and authority, it didn’t matter whether she was a man or woman – she was probably a very influential juror because of her talent. In that sense we have to look at what people bring to the table, and their ability to analyse and understand.

Why was Benedetta Tagliabue chosen?
For her broad understanding of international architecture. She is Italian but lives in Spain, and we didn’t have any representatives on the jury from southern Europe. She is also at the younger end of the age bracket of our jurors. Yes, she is a woman. But, as always, when the Pritzker Prize does something they try to look at the whole complex picture – they don’t go for the one-line answer. 

She is well travelled, multicultural and multinational. She knows what is going on in different contexts. She brings a positive attitude and can see the positive in any situation – even the most difficult. Also, when Benedetta speaks she is extremely poetic. When your role on a jury relies on your ability to present arguments and share your ideas, the ability to express yourself well is so important.

Did the issues surrounding Denise Scott Brown and the campaign to have her contribution to Venturi’s Pritzker Prize recognised have an impact on the award?
From a personal point of view, the petition deeply affected me. I found it very interesting to read the comments from so many people.  That was especially enlightening. It helped me to understand what is really important to people nowadays. If I felt this reaction, I can imagine my colleagues on the jury are also now more conscious of the current situation relating to women.

Did it change the judging criteria?
No. I say no because of the nature of the Pritzker. The goals are to honour a living architect or architects for a body of built work that embodies the art of architecture and makes a substantial contribution to humanity. That will not change. But what happens is every year the jury takes that broad goal and interprets it. Last year [when Shigeru Ban won the award], the interpretation had a very strong social aspect.

We are riding a wave related to women in the profession

Did the Denise Scott Brown campaign force a shift within the profession?
Right now we are riding a wave related to women in the profession. In many places there are a lot of women dealing with these issues. There is enormous interest in really understanding what is going on and why. It is an exciting time [but] it is very hard to change the profession.

What will the jury recognise in 2015?
We can only watch and see the jury’s citation to see what are the most important issues and the message for a certain time.

Are women equally recognised in architecture and architecture awards?
We have to shine a very bright light on the issue. We have to take very deliberate measures and hope the rest will follow. The best thing that is happening now to change this is award programmes like the AJ Women in Architecture Awards. The only way we can push the pendulum to the centre is to first push it to the extreme other direction. There is a lot of ignorance out there. Lots of people do not have the information about talented women – they just don’t know them.

What are the main issues facing women in architecture?
Tradition or history. It is a young profession which has always been male-dominated. The building trades, collaborators and the industry around architectural design are also heavily male and have always been like that.

Structural problems in practice are also an issue – access to positions of responsibility. As long as the decision-making structure is not challenged and continues to be male-dominated, there will always be a bias in favour of men.

There is also discrimination on an individual level: not hiring a woman because she is at childbearing age, automatically assuming when you see three architects and one is a woman that she must do the interiors – there is a lot of individual stereotyping.

Have these issues changed throughout your career?
There has been slight change. Technology and communication have helped a lot. We don’t have to wait for a print magazine or a book to come out with information anymore. There is a lot more information being disseminated, much quicker, and in a much more independent way. That has helped women.

There is also more sensitivity towards the issue so it is much easier to speak out. But it is particularly upsetting that in spite of this, architecture is still so unbalanced.

How do we tackle the issues?
The more we can showcase talent and the work of women, the more it will help society to understand that talent is not related to the clothes you wear, the hairstyle you have, or your gender.

Will the profession ever reach 50:50?
I don’t know. I’m more concerned about getting to a point where it is not important, and that we can really look at architecture without any of the bias that we have today. It won’t really matter whether it is 50:50, or 60:40, so long as there is equality in the way we practise.

As a judge what do you hope to see from the entrants to this year’s Women in Architecture awards?
I always see extremely high-quality buildings. But I’m very interested in seeing the way young architects are organising their practice, especially in the emerging category – new ways of working; not the traditional architectural studio or firm. My intuition tells me we will probably see different types of collaboration, and different ways of working together for different phases of work.

Pritzker Prize – only two female winners

2014 Shigeru Ban
2013 Toyo Ito
2012 Wang Shu
2011 Eduardo Souto de Moura
2010 Kazuyo Sejima & Ryue Nishizawa
2009 Peter Zumthor
2008 Jean Nouvel
2007 Richard Rogers
2006 Paulo Mendes da Rocha
2005 Thom Mayne
2004 Zaha Hadid
2003 Jørn Utzon
2002 Glenn Murcutt
2001 Jacques Herzog & Pierre de Meuron
2000 Rem Koolhaas
1999 Norman Foster
1998 Renzo Piano
1997 Sverre Fehn
1996 Rafael Moneo
1995 Tadao Ando
1994 Christian de Portzamparc
1993 Fumihiko Maki
1992 Alvaro Siza
1991 Robert Venturi
1990 Aldo Rossi
1989 Frank Gehry
1988 Gordon Bunshaft & Oscar Niemeyer
1987 Kenzō Tange
1986 Gottfried Böhm
1985 Hans Hollein
1984 Richard Meier
1983 IM Pei
1982 Kevin Roche
1981 James Stirling
1980 Luis Barragán
1979 Philip Johnson

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