Nouvel’s Cartier Foundation Building, Paris

Jean Nouvel has won the 2008 Pritzker Prize for Architecture. No surprise. The lack of surprise makes it is easy to view the Pritzker as establishment laurels for those who are already well-established. Like the Nobel Prizes, it is conferred on safe, already certified choices. Nouvel’s buildings are certainly of a high quality of design. At his best, he designs beautiful buildings. Who can quarrel? The Pritzker tries to remind us that the design of beautiful buildings within, or maybe—on occasion—closer to the limits of the accepted canon of beauty is the ultimate goal of architecture. People need enclosed spaces, and it is up to architects to design them in ways that satisfy the needs of body and soul. Or, at least, in ways that reassure us about what we already know. Nouvel works masterfully within the limits of what we already know.

So, is there a problem with any of this? Not at all. I say, let the rich bestow upon the famous whatever they like. Let the rituals of power play themselves out as they always have. It is quite a seductive spectacle. We all become part of it, say, by posting comments like this on blogs.

But I have to question how relevant the Pritzker Prize is for the expanding world of architecture. Whatever its claim to reward innovation and expand discourse, I would say not very. Its focus on buildings, and often expensive buildings, leaves out much of the most innovative work going on in the field today, by younger architects making smaller-scale projects, or experimental ideas that never get off the boards or out of the computer—ideas that get published and change our ways of thinking about what architecture is and can be. The Pritzker sends the message that unless one builds, and in a spectacular way, one will never qualify for “architecture’s top honor.” The catch-22 here is that to build you need clients, and to build spectacularly, like Nouvel, very rich clients, and they are seldom willing to risk sponsoring the genuinely new. So, the subliminal message is, don’t push the envelope too far.

The existence of the Pritzker reminds us that the powerful are not as self-assured as they like to appear. They need to engage continually in demonstrations of their power, such as getting on—in an upbeat way—the front page of the New York Times, as well as other major newspapers and magazines around the world. Oddly enough, the Times perennially rails against the Nobel Prizes, not least because its founder was an armaments manufacturer who bought respectability in posterity by creating prizes in his name for intellectual achievement. And it works. When we think of Alfred Nobel, his name becomes synonymous with Albert Einstein, Samuel Beckett, Toni Morrison, Martin Luther King, Jr. The Pritzker is sponsored by the Hyatt Foundation, not exactly “merchants of death.” Still, the formula works. By associating themselves with successful architects and the world of creative thought, they make a significant step up in cultural, and historical, terms. Their domain, and their power to affect the world, is extended and consolidated.

For the recipients of the Pritzker, it’s easy enough to understand why they would accept it, often with speeches of praise for the Prize and its sponsors. The money may be relatively paltry ($100,000, compared with the Nobel’s $1,500,000), but every bit helps and, after all, why not? What’s the harm? Only two have ever declined the Nobel, on principle: Sartre and Le Duc. So far, no architect has declined the Pritzker. If that were to happen, it really would ‘expand the discourse.’

All this we already know. So, why bother to write about it? Perhaps only to step back from the spectacle long enough to see its contour, and its limits. Only then is it possible to see its true place in the order of things, and the wider world that lies beyond.


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