When 87-year-old Arata Isozaki was named winner of the 2019 Pritzker Prize last month, there was some head-scratching. “Didn’t he already win it?” asked one architect I know. Another said dismissively, “It’s just a lifetime-achievement award.”
Which is not to say that Isozaki does not deserve recognition under the criteria that have dominated the annual prize since its inception 40 years ago. The career of this elegant architect, who came of age in war-scarred Japan, has spanned from his early days in Kenzo Tange’s office to the establishment of a global practice in which his eclectic architecture has had brushes with Brutalism, Postmodernism, and other harder-to-label isms. “I could not dwell upon a single style,” he said.
The Pritzker’s celebration of a famous, senior, male architect has been part of its DNA since Philip Johnson, 72 years old and both a star and a star-maker, won the first award in 1979. At that time, hotel tycoon Jay Pritzker, whose corporate foundation finances the award, described the intention of the prize in The New York Times as honoring “a living architect or group of architects.” Unfortunately, the group thing hasn’t happened, though the prize has been twice awarded to two—and once to three—partners. And in a 1999 book devoted to the first 20 years of the Pritzker, J. Carter Brown, the first jury chairman, recalled that the early panel worried “we might run out of superstars” as the prize went on. Clearly, the agenda was set.
But in the same book, Martha Thorne, then a curator and now the Prize’s executive director, wrote that “the true test of the Pritzker Prize . . . is yet to come,” calling for a broader field of candidates and for the jury to “continue to step beyond what is famous in favor of quality. No woman has as yet won the Pritzker, a disturbing fact that reveals much about the traditional structure of the profession and the deficiencies of reward systems.”
Eventually, the Pritzker did honor one woman—Zaha Hadid, in 2004—and later Kazuyo Sejima, but as one-half of the partnership SANAA, in 2010—and Carme Pigem as one-third of the firm RCR Arquitectes, in 2017 (the fractions are getting smaller). Yet despite an ongoing flap over Denise Scott Brown’s exclusion from her partner Robert Venturi’s 1991 award, the jury failed to include Wang Shu’s partner and wife, Lu Wenyu, in the 2012 prize. In 2013, an online petition to retroactively include Brown in Venturi’s award garnered more than 20,000 signatures, including at least one Pritzker laureate’s. No action was taken, and it damaged the reputation of the prize.
Occasionally, the Pritzker jury does seem to respond to the winds of contemporary politics and culture: Shigeru Ban was honored in 2014, largely for his innovative designs for disaster relief; and Alejandro Aravena in 2016 for his designs of low-cost housing in Chile.
But, mostly, the prize doesn’t reflect how architecture and the world have continued to evolve. Arguably, an initial goal of the Prize to elevate the importance of architecture in the public mind has been met—with far wider knowledge and appreciation of design than 40 years ago, thanks in no small part to the Internet, where sites like ArchDaily draw millions of visitors.
The prize has had, admirably, a global reach, recognizing not only prominent Western architects but those from Asia and Latin America. But there has been only one Muslim and never a laureate from the entire continent of Africa. Is it because—as in the case of most women architects—they are just not famous enough?
In the 1999 book, Thorne called for future Pritzker juries to “be bold enough to make the prize even more one of recognition of a career in progress, not a stamp of approval in retrospect.”
Isn’t it time to pay serious attention to those words and change the Pritzker Prize? While some critics call the prize irrelevant and believe it should just end, I disagree. It is a powerful spotlight, but one that could shine more broadly.
The Pritzker has been called architecture’s Nobel. Though the Nobel gives a single prize in literature, it often awards multiple prizes in chemistry, physics, or economics. As architecture is both an art and a science, why couldn’t there be more than one annual Pritzker? An actual lifetime- achievement award would honor the field’s giants—and giantesses—before they die. But there also could be an Architect or Architects of the Year, for those creating extraordinary contemporary examples of design. A third prize could acknowledge architects for excellence in design with a vital humanitarian purpose—commitment to the remediation of climate change, say, or to improving the urban realm. The $100,000 prize money that was awarded in 1979 is still given today, though, if reflecting inflation, it would amount to about $350,000 in 2019 dollars. In consideration of that, perhaps there could be enough for an expanded program.
This would hardly dilute the significance of the Pritzker Prize but buoy up the prestigious honor for a long future, by reflecting the concerns, diversity, plurality, and vibrancy of the field of architecture today.