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After Zaha, The Pritzker Chooses Civics Over Style

More than a decade after Zaha Hadid’s win, architecture’s biggest prize has shifted away from the world she built.

Claudio Reyes / Getty

Last week, seven winners of the vaunted Pritzker Architecture Prize gathered in the airy, Danish Modern-style Trusteeship Council chamber of the United Nations: they included, among other worthies, Richard Rogers of the U.K. (the 2007 recipient), Wang Shu of China (2012), Italy’s Renzo Piano (1998), and in the far corner, seeming curiously like a guest at his own party, Alejandro Aravena, the 49-year-old Chilean who surprised some observers when he was announced as this year’s Pritzker laureate in January.

The most conspicuous invitee, however, was absent from the proceedings—Zaha Hadid, the 2004 recipient and the first woman to win the prize. Hadid died of a heart attack in a Miami Hospital at the age of 65 just five days before, a coincidence that served to highlight how much architecture has changed over the last decade, as well as the role Pritzker itself has played in the process.

Hadid—Zaha, as she was widely known in architectural circles—cut a singular figure in the design world, and the encomia that filled the press after her death made extensive reference to her distinctive personality; “brash” “icon,” “force,” and other admiring descriptors were thrown around, carrying with them only a slight whiff of condescension. The coverage was fitting—it was how everyone had always talked of Zaha. Her extraordinary and lavishly complex buildings, with their involuted forms and sculpted interiors, were less easily characterized, though “hermetic” was a popular choice: Reminiscent at times of nautilus shells or the contours of the human ear, they often seemed sealed up against the social and urban elements. That impression was reflected back in Zaha’s unique admixture of brusqueness and glamour, one of the few architects with sufficient chutzpah to walk out of an interview if she didn’t like the line of questioning. She was, without question, a brash, iconic force.

During the prize ceremony, Aravena made a moving speech that began with him paying respects to Hadid, before describing his own vision of design. “What we architects model is not bricks or stones or steel or wood, but life itself,” he said. “Architecture is about giving form to the places where people live—it is not more complicated than that, but also not more simple than that.”

Aravena and his Santiago-based office, Elemental, have risen to international acclaim with their designs for social housing and other civic-minded projects that have focused on underserved communities throughout Chile. Aravena’s end-users are not just the passive beneficiaries of architecture but active partners in its creation. In his Quinta Monroy houses, located in the coastal city of Iquique, Aravena demonstrated the potential of his “half a good house” concept, whereby the designer uses public funds to produce an architectural frame that the occupants can then complete for themselves. This is just one example of Aravena’s many initiatives to put design at the disposal of the rapidly expanding cities of the developing world, and from the Pritzker podium, the architect announced that all of his housing designs would be available on an open-source basis, free to whoever wants to use them.

Aravena’s vision is very different from the Pritzker’s more extravagant and formally oriented 2004 honoree. At a press conference, Aravena didn’t take the bait when invited to speculate on what his win said about a possible shift in priorities for the Pritzker. “We have been engaged in trying to have a conversation outside of architecture” he responded. Hadid, however, or at least her proxies, have not been so circumspect. When Aravena’s selection was made public three months ago, Patrik Schumacher, Hadid’s longtime design partner, made his feelings public in a pointed Facebook post. “The PC takeover of architecture is complete,” wrote Schumacher. “Pritzker Prize mutates into a prize for humanitarian work.” In this, the architect claimed, he saw an abdication of design’s “specific societal task”—the formation, presumably, of ever more innovative structural, mechanical, and functional environments—in favor of what he perceived as a well-intended but misguided samaritanism. It was, in architectural terms, a serious throw-down.

If indeed the Pritzker has been commandeered by a cabal of the priggishly pious, it has been a slow-moving coup. Founded in 1979 by the eponymous Chicago-based hotelier clan, the Pritzker was first given to Philip Johnson, an architect whose political compass, if it ever existed, was crushed under the metaphorical jackboot he wore through much of the 1930s as a Nazi sympathizer. Since then, while no clear-cut criteria have ever quite emerged, certain patterns have become evident: The winners tend to have a substantial volume of museum work, they are distinguished by their dedication to signature stylistic formulae, and they have been almost exclusively men—Hadid is the glaring exception. The 2010 winners, Japanese firm SANAA, are a male-female partnership, but otherwise the exclusion of women has been one of the prize’s most talked-about failures, especially given that past awardees Robert Venturi and Wang Shu are both on effectively equal professional footing with their respective wives, Denise Scott Brown and Lu Wenyu.

The Pritzker, which comes with a $100,000 prize, is awarded by a committee that changes from year to year. Aravena himself was a member from 2009 to 2015 and was party to the selection of Shigeru Ban two years ago, whose affordable refugee housing made him, until lately, the prize’s most socially-conscious laureate. This is only to say, however, that the Pritzker, for all its power to command the media’s attention, has been somewhat late to the party: The temperature of architectural practice has been moving in the direction of greater political engagement for much of the last decade, as critics and the public have grown weary of the high-octane theatrics of the so-called “starchitects.” That word, also frequently appended to Hadid, has become so tiresome that it was scarcely uttered, even in disapproval, during the panel conversation. Once a maker of celebrity architects, the Pritzker as an institution now appears to be more interested in the making of good buildings.  

Yet the prize is bound to remain, as it long has been, more capstone than catalyst. Its importance is simply that it exists for want of anything better; if there actually were a “Nobel for architecture” one wouldn’t see the Pritzker described that way quite so often. In the meantime, contemporary design has grown so radically diverse that any once-a-year award is bound to diminish in significance as time goes on. The Pritzker has directed a powerful spotlight on neglected corners of the architecture world, rescuing from relative obscurity many worthy designers. But as it turns its focus inwards to cover past omissions, including female designers and the politically-engaged, the field will move on without it—possibly even further than Aravena’s radical ideal of social practice.

This summer, the new Pritzker winner is curating the Venice Architecture Biennale, a job that has brought low many an architect no less esteemed than he. The show may well expose some of the potential limits of Aravena’s pragmatist approach, and if it does it might just initiate an all-too familiar dynamic in the eternal cycles of architectural criticism, begetting a renewed interest in the visionary, unearthly abstractions of Zaha Hadid.