You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

When Did Architecture’s Top Prize Become So Predictable and Boring?

Recently, the Pritzker Committee held the award ceremony for its annual prize, which this year went to Eduardo Souto de Moura, a Portuguese architect revered among architecture’s global, academic elite and virtually unknown to the public. Like the work of other Pritzker winners, such as the Swiss Peter Zumthor and the Australian Glen Murcutt, Souto de Moura’s rigorously composed, meticulously detailed buildings embrace modernity and broadcast their modernism by way of the usual stylistic indicators—minimalist abstraction, clean lines, structural expression—while evincing specificity of place through careful attention to site, use of local materials and building techniques, and astute management of natural light. Also like Zumthor and Murcutt, Souto de Moura maintains a mainly local practice, which is why his work is still largely unknown. Most of his buildings are in and around Porto, Portugal’s second-largest city, where his office is based and where he enjoys the mentorship of another Pritzker Prize winner: Alvaro Siza, for whom Souto de Moura once worked.

The Hyatt Foundation, which sponsors the annual Pritzker Prize, promotes the analogy of the Pritzker to the Nobel Prize, which Barack Obama explicitly echoed at this month’s ceremony, and, in monetary terms, it is one of architecture’s heftiest awards*, with the winner receiving $100,000. Such a lofty comparison means that the awarding of a Pritzker merits considered analysis not just for the quality of the winner’s work but also for the message that celebrating his or her approach to architecture sends about the field’s present and future place in contemporary society.

On its own terms, Souto de Moura’s work merits laurels. His stadium in Braga displays a structural elegance unusual in this era of breakneck construction schedules and fast-track design. Souto de Moura also couples a laudable sense of locality with a social agenda: to build the stadium, sited adjacent to a hill, he blasted away part of the mountain, ground its rock into the structure’s concrete, and parlayed the remaining slope into free seating for spectators unable to pay for the more commodious stadium views.

Souto de Moura proves a skillful urbanist in his Burgo Shop and Office Tower, which makes of an ordinary office complex an elegant adventure of construction technique and historical reference. One tall and one short building occupy a platform in tense counterpoint, echoing multiple high notes in the history of modernist art and architecture: Mies van der Rohe’s 860 Lake Shore Drive in Chicago; Alison and Peter Smithson’s Economist Complex in London; paintings by Kazimir Malevich. Souto de Moura deploys this minimalism with lavish rigor: The proportion of a single rectangle determines the shape of windows, doors, and opaque façade panels, and this geometric figure alternates with a related but differently proportioned rectangle, long and slender, on the tower’s façade.

The Burgo complex shows Souto de Moura’s subtle sensitivity to the singularity of place, with the design of the tower’s facades inflected to block out noise from vehicular traffic while responding to the brilliant Portuguese sun: The smaller north and south façades are mostly glass, the east and west façades mostly opaque. And even this grander work shows the kind of attention to detail that makes of machine-made materials and large-scale projects a handmade work of art: How he turns those corners, transitioning from glass to stone panels! Glass plates are folded into beams or panels like the interlaced fingers of a meditating Buddha, suggesting a fanaticism for turning the details of construction into moments of art evocative of Mies, Souto de Moura’s self-confessed inspiration.

Surveying Souto de Moura’s projects one by one yields much to praise and even to celebrate. (Others are less remarkable, including one of his most celebrated, the Casa das Historias Paula Rego in Cascais, a display of two pyramidal towers anchoring an opaque, rectangular, mat-like structure, all earth-red-dyed concrete outside and cool white galleries and glassed courtyards within. Here, Souto de Moura proves himself not the sculptor his parti for that project demands.) So his receipt of the Pritzker could be cause for jubilation. But I’m not dancing, I’m yawning.

My reason is that the Pritzker committee has bestowed its honors upon this kind of work many times before, including to Siza; Murcutt, who was on this year’s jury; and Zumthor. In choosing Souto de Moura, the Prizker committee is rewarding an approach to design rather than a singularly creative practitioner. This approach embraces what modernization offers underdeveloped societies: It rejects nostalgia and historicism by embracing the stylistic signifiers most commonly associated with modernism, while doing architecture’s best to stay globalization’s culture-debasing hand by insisting upon meticulous craftsmanship and a considered sense of locality and place. Twenty years ago, this was a theoretically provocative and aesthetically important approach to design, but it is far less relevant to the central issues facing architecture today.

With architecture culture now thoroughly globalized, most people have stopped worrying that the built environments of Budapest, Dehli, Kinshasha, and Singapore will be indistinguishable. McDonald’s and Starbucks may be colonizing the world, but, as people’s general cultural knowledge has expanded, it has become obvious that geographical particularities, economic development, political systems, and cultural mores are simply too variable to create the built environment of pervasive homogeneity that architects and architectural theorists once fearfully predicted.

Decades-old news is no news, and so, for Souto de Moura to really deserve the Pritzker, the quality of his work ought to be extraordinary, surpassing in aesthetic creativity the example that its recognition sets for the profession as the recipient of architecture’s top award. This is true of the buildings of Zumthor, the 2009 Pritzker winner about whom I wrote for TNR, and of Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, the 2010 winners. The work of these architects is stupendously innovative and meticulously executed, challenging the viewer’s sensorial expectations to offer up a kind of bodily aesthetic experience that only architecture, and only the very best of architecture, can create. (Sejima’s New Museum in New York City doesn’t come close to exhibiting the best of her talents, which can be seen in the Glass Pavilion of the Toledo Museum of Art and in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, Japan.)

We should congratulate the jury members of the Pritzker committee for turning away from what Ada Louise Huxtable once described as “helicopter architecture”—an askew Daniel Libeskind or crumpled Frank Gehry museum in every mid-sized city with outsized ambitions—toward more theoretically sophisticated practices. Now, let’s encourage them to focus on the non-architecture sections of the daily papers and focus on the real problems facing contemporary architecture: The ongoing disconnection between what we now know about human cognition and emotions—in other words, between how people actually experience the built environment—and how architects design it; sustainability; the explosion of urbanism in Asia and Latin America and how it is reshaping notions of public space, affordable housing, and historic preservation; the failure of many governments in developed and developing countries to commit to providing its citizens with appropriate, up-to-date infrastructure; the degree to which design in many countries is overdetermined by development and manufacturing, the balkanization of urban design, landscape architecture, and architecture. Fortunately, with the Pritzker Prize, there’s always next year.

*CORRECTION: The article originally said the Pritzker was the most lucrative of architecture awards. In fact, another prize is worth twice as much. We regret the error.

Sarah Williams Goldhagen is the architecture critic for The New Republic.