Awards in the fine arts take the temperature of our culture. Looking at the winners of the Grammy, Oscar, or Tony awards offers serial snapshots of where we are culturally, and, perhaps, where our values are leading us. The Pritzker Architecture Prize launched more than four decades ago, in 1979, as a “who’s who” of architecture, but in recent years it has begun signaling instead a “what’s next.”
A look at the list of Pritzker laureates breaks into three distinct ways of perceiving architecture. The first 20 years were largely devoted to honoring established stars. Philip Johnson, Robert Venturi, James Stirling, Kevin Roche, I. M. Pei, Richard Meier, Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhas—all received this singular honor, but all were already well known. The next 15 laureates widened the lens geographically and demographically. Zaha Hadid became the first female winner in 2004, but the choices were still safely “modern.”
The past six years, however, have demonstrated a shift. Rather than the safe bet of a superstar, or anointing architects who are exotically distant from the usual suspects, the six honorees addressed values and motivations aimed at redirecting the aspirations of what architects do.
First, in 2016 the noble intentions of Alejandro Aravena of Chile, whose ability to utilize tight budgets to address local needs creates great buildings, were recognized. Then, the largely local and smaller-scale work of Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigem, and Ramon Vilalta of Spain were celebrated. In 2018, Balkrishna Doshi won for a practice that focused on the building culture of India, often hidden from the Western world. The following year, the prize reverted somewhat to form, bestowing a “lifetime achievement” award to the great Arata Isozaki. In 2020, for the first two female partners, Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara of Ireland, received the honor.
The flow of Pritzker Prize recognition has had a near-linear evolution. Recently, the prize has come to recognize the meanings of architectural practice—meanings that are not limited to aesthetics. The reason for this evolution is directly related to the emergence of the internet. When the award was launched in 1979, the world of architecture was defined by elites. First, white, male, Western men who went to “the right schools” dominated the schools, institutions, and media that recognized and validated what was significant in architecture. The editors and institutional award jurors (again, almost all white males who went to “the right schools”) picked between the usual suspects for publication and awards.
Then the internet allowed anyone to publish any project, to anyone, everywhere, instantly and largely for free, breaking the stranglehold on access of these gatekeepers. The internet impacts how we view every aspect of our lives—and it has begun to affect the way all professions view themselves. WebMD and a thousand other health-related websites have connected everyone to their bodies, far beyond individual doctor visits. Houzz and Zillow have permanently changed the way everyone thinks of their domiciles. And this new way of appreciating the world has now exposed architecture and what architects do. Ultimately, that openness has affected the Pritzker Prize.
Of course there are aberrant choices to the award program’s flow, such as when it was awarded to the iconoclastic Robert Venturi (without Denise Scott Brown) amid a sea of traditional Modernists, or, later, when the “starchitect” Isozaki received the award amid the more esoteric choices that came before and after him. But there has been an unspoken vice grip on all of the outcomes of this singular award, from its beginning until now. One hard criterion for the bestowing of the Pritzker Prize, despite all of the evolutions of its focus: Virtually every year, the winner has fallen into the “correct” aesthetic of a Modernist mindset, if not style. The prize has never gone to a polarizing architect, such as Robert Stern or Michael Graves, a vernacular-manipulating architect like Andrés Duany, let alone an architect with a traditional or classical aspect to their work, such as Leon Krier or Demetri Porphyrios.
Until this year.
This year, the winner was unknown to the general public, and, even more important, he was not a “name” even to most architects, and the style of his work cannot be pigeonholed as modern. Diébédo Francis Kéré is from Africa, and his crafted and expressive work is both fresh and rich in the human touch of materials, color, and detail. Architects everywhere were surprised. I was delighted.
In his extensive portfolio there is craft, indigenous and ingenious. His work lives on the human scale, and there is an absence of sculptural abstraction. There is expression in shape, but more, in color and material combinations. By all accounts, Kéré lives to make buildings in, of, and for Africa. Others can learn from this. He makes buildings that are exquisitely human in generation and use.
This year’s Pritzker Prize didn’t embody high design as a style screed, but focused instead on the realities that architects are bathed in every day: where the work is done, and how it reflects how each of us understand what we value, what our clients value. It reflects a profession coming to terms with timeless values that are universal, beyond the abstractly formal and metaphoric. Until this year, the Pritzker Prize winners had embodied ideas and values that had been imposed upon it by the keepers of the canon, who determined, prescribed, proscribed, and anointed.
The critics and their institutions are often fascinated by the mystery of creation. When music is surprising, or fine art is disturbing, or architecture is abstract, those critics and academics have the power of jurists, choosing winners and losers. But the internet has opened the floodgates of exposure, turning all of us into critics. Although Kéré won the “Nobel of Architecture,” his newly found celebrity refutes the tradition of orthodoxy as conferred by elite arbiters. His discovery reflects a new, universal, connection, where any architect is available to millions of viewers: no editor, jury or academy needed. A new era is dawning.
Featured image: Village Opera, courtesy of Diébédo Francis Kéré.