And the Pritzker Goes to… [A Short-short History of the Pritzker Prize]


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So, since tomorrow, March 5, 2019, will see the announcement of the 2019 Pritzker Architecture Prize, I thought it might be worth to whet (y)our appetite with this short piece from last year. The text, published within my ongoing section ‘ArquiNoir’ in issue #84 of Mexican magazine Arquine, was written -as you probably guessed already- on occasion of last year’s award, which went to Balkrishna Doshi. However, as it’s traditional in the column, I barely touched upon Doshi, and rather went for a slightly humorous, somewhat sarcastic, and very brief review of the (also) brief history of the Prize -peppered with some saucy vignettes that have taken place in the four decades that have gone by since it was created.

The text was originally written in (perfect) Spanish, so some adaptations were done here and there so as to limit the wonkiness of the English translation. For the original text, as well as a view of both the cartoon and the essay as they were published in the magazine, just scroll down. For past cartoons on the Pritzker Prize, click here.


According to Brendan Gill (not to be confused with Iker Gil), secretary of the Pritzker Prize between 1985 and 1987 and author of the column “The Sky Line” for the New Yorker, shortly before leaving the secretariat he received a call at the offices of the organization. The hoarse voice on the other side of the wire was that of Gordon Bunshaft, who, working for SOM has left us some of the best works produced by American corporate architecture, such as the Lever House. According to Gill, Bunshaft “had long coveted the prize” (which actually had only run for eight editions), and phoned to ask about the nomination process. Gill informed him that anyone could propose a candidate, and that “many times friends or admirers of an architect would write in to propose him”. So, with proverbial pragmatism, Bunshaft nominated himself[1]. He would show similar pragmatism a few months later when he picked up the prize -ex-aequo with Oscar Niemeyer-, delivering an acceptance speech of less than 60 words[2].

Bunshaft’s is surely one of the most colorful anecdotes in the History of a prize which, inevitably, have never been without controversy. When Niemeyer and Bunshaft were honored exactly 30 years ago now, Paul Goldberger counter-attacked in the pages of the New York Times, speaking out against the policy of rewarding these ‘White Old Men’ (my words, not his), old glories whose work he regarded as totally off-tune with the reality of the time[3]. Surely Mr. Goldberger still thinks the same today, at 67 years old. I certainly do think the same as six years ago, when I wrote (sorry for the self-quotation) that “[o]ver the years, the Pritzker organization has featured a combination of total predictability, submitting to the architectural status quo by awarding its prize to the decreasing members of the star(chitectural) system who are left -and the Oscar-like custom to reward old-timers in not particularly moments of their careers before it’s too late-, and a penchant for alternating those with lesser-known names, usually artisans from outside the Anglo-Saxon market. [4]

Six years later, I still think that, despite the fact that the organization itself claims on its own website that [m]any of the procedures and rewards of the Pritzker Prize are modeled after the Nobel Prize, the comparison with the Oscars is a sounder one. I also still have hope, as I said then, that at some point Peter Eisenman plays the role of Martin Scorsese when, in 2006, he finally picked up a prize awarded rather for his glorious past than for the film that served as an excuse. This would honor the tradition I already outlined -and, in light of Eisenman’s work in the last thirty years, it’s in the only possible option, anyway. They have also adopted other customs of the Academy, such as delivering posthumous prizes: in 2015, the announcement of Frei Otto’s award took place two weeks earlier than usual… and one day after the architect’s demise, despite tje Prize’s stated purpose to honor annually a living architect whose built work demonstrates a combination of those qualities of talent, vision, and commitment, etc., etc.” If they intend to reward the only member of the New York Five still available -Meier already got his more than three decades ago-, and only as a preventive measure, perhaps they should hurry up a little (the same would apply to César Pelli, Ricardo Scofidio or Arata Isozaki -and even Stanley Tigerman, since we’re at it).

Not an easy feat for him, though. It is true that during its first, the prize had a marked local nature, awarding Philip Johnson (1979), Kevin Roche (1982), I.M. Pei (1983), Richard Meier (1984), the aforementioned Gordon Bunshaft (1988), and Frank Gehry (1989) – Robert Venturi would be added to the list in 1991. However, we would have to wait until Thom Mayne got it in 2005 to find another American (US, I mean) Pritzker, and none other has been elected since. The most elementary arithmetic of architectural criticism tells us, therefore, that the United States has one Pritzker for every 40.7 million inhabitants, very far from Portugal, which, with its 10.32 million has already obtained two, and from Japan, whose five winners almost make one for every 21.16 million -almost in a technical draw with the United Kingdom (Mexico is far behind, with its -still- only winner dating back to the early days of the award).

However, in spite of its international projection, the award has somehow managed to avoid  some of the controversies that the Oscars have gone through, such as the one attached to the #OscarsSoWhite campaign in 2016 (although racial diversity, minus the cases of Japan and the nationalized Pei, has been, let’s say, quite limited). There will always be cynics who see in Wang Shu’s 2012 nomination a marketing device similar to that of Hollywood films which introduce Asian actors to make their way into the Chinese market. There will also be some who think that to award the prize to B.V. Doshi is a gesture of Western paternalism, which somehow rewards his relationship with Le Corbusier. It will not be me who makes such unfair remarks. I won’t be the one, either, who, in line with the movement Time’s Up, will accuse the organization of sexism, for leaving Denise Scott Brown out in 1991, while including a forty-year-old Ryue Nishizawa in 2010 it.

And I will not do it because, regardless of how fair -or extremely unfair- their decision might be, we will criticize them with equal fury. Who will be next? As Marcos Mundstock would say, “place your bullets, gentlemen![5]

[1] Brendan Gill, “Worldwide Plaza”, in The Sky Line, The New Yorker, December 24, 1990; 86.

[2] It consisted of exactly 58 words: In 1928, I entered the MIT School of Architecture and started my architectural trip. Today, 60 years later, I’ve been given the Pritzker Architecture Prize for which I thank the Pritzker family and the distinguished members of the selection committee for honoring me with this prestigious award. It is the capstone of my life in architecture. That’s it.”

[3] Paul Goldberger, “What Pritzker Winners Tell Us About the Prize”, in Architecture View, The New York Times, May 29, 1988.

[4]Pritzker 2012: Who they gonna call?, in Klaustoon’s Blog, February 27, 2012.

[5] In the original text, the sentence is the untranslatable play on words “¡hagan fuego, señores! “. Les Luthiers, “Ya el sol asomaba por poniente.” Volumen III (Ion, 1973)



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De acuerdo con Brendan Gill (no confundir con Iker Gil), secretario del Pritzker Prize entre 1985 y 1987 y autor de la columna “The Sky Line” para el New Yorker, poco antes de dejar la secretaría recibió una llamada en las oficinas de la organización. La voz ronca al otro lado del hilo era la de Gordon Bunshaft, arquitecto que trabajando para SOM nos ha dejado algunas de las mejores obras producidas por la arquitectura corporativa estadounidense, como la Lever House. De acuerdo con Gill, Bunshaft “hacía mucho tiempo que codiciaba el premio” (que en realidad tan sólo había tenido ocho ediciones), y llamaba para interesarse por el proceso de nominación. Gill le informó de que cualquiera podía nominar un candidato, y que “muchas veces amigos o admiradores de un arquitecto escribían para proponerlo”. Así que, con proverbial pragmatismo, Bunshaft se nominó a sí mismo[1]. Similar pragmatismo exhibiría unos meses después cuando recogiera el premio, ex-aequo con Oscar Niemeyer, y pronunciara un discurso de aceptación que no llegó a las 60 palabras[2].

La de Bunshaft es seguramente una de las anécdotas más coloridas dentro de la historia de unos premios que, como no puede ser de otra manera, nunca han estado exentos de polémica. Ya cuando Niemeyer y Bunshaft fueron galardonados hace ahora exactamente 30 años, Paul Goldberger arremetía en las páginas del New York Times contra la política de premiar a estos ‘White Old Men’ (mis palabras, no las suyas), viejas glorias cuya obra él veía en total falta de sintonía con la realidad actual[3]. Seguramente el Sr. Goldberger sigue opinando lo mismo hoy en día, a sus 67 años. Yo, ciertamente, opino lo mismo que hace seis cuando escribía (perdón por la autocita) que “a lo largo de los años la organización de los Pritzker ha combinado dos estrategias: por una parte, la de ser totalmente predecibles y postrarse ante el statu quo arquitectónico galardonando, a la manera de los Oscars,  a los cada vez menos numerosos miembros del ‘star(chitectural) system’ que quedan, aunque sea en momentos no particularmente memorables de sus carreras; por otra, la de alternar a estos con nombres menos conocidos, generalmente esforzados artesanos procedentes de fuera del mercado anglosajón.[4]

Seis años después, sigo pensando que, pese a que la propia organización insista desde su propia página web en que “muchos de los procedimientos y premios del Pritzker… han tomado como modelo a los Premios Nobel”, la comparación con los Oscar es más acertada. También sigo esperando, como afirmaba entonces, que en algún momento Peter Eisenman haga las veces de Martin Scorsese cuando en 2006 recogía por fin un premio que lo era más por pasadas glorias que por el film que le servía de excusa. Esto se correspondería con la tradición antes apuntada para los Pritzker -y, a la luz de la obra de Eisenman en las últimas tres décadas, es en cualquier caso la única opción posible. También han adoptado otras costumbres de la Academia, como la de entregar premios póstumos: en 2015, el anuncio del premio de Frei Otto tuvo lugar dos semanas antes de lo habitual… y un día después del fallecimiento del arquitecto, pese a su objetivo declarado de “homenajear a un arquitecto vivo cuyo trabajo construido demuestra una combinación de las cualidades del talento, la visión, el compromiso, etc., etc.” Si tienen intención de premiar al único miembro de los New York Five que queda libre -Meier ya obtuvo el suyo hace más de tres décadas-, y únicamente como medida preventiva, quizá deberían acelerar los tiempos (lo mismo aplicaría a César Pelli, Ricardo Scofidio o Arata Isozaki, e incluso a Stanley Tigerman, ya puestos).

No lo tiene fácil, en cualquier caso. Es cierto que durante la primera década de su historia, los premios tuvieron una marcada componente local, con premios para Philip Johnson (1979), Kevin Roche (1982), I.M. Pei (1983) Richard Meier (1984), el ya mencionado Gordon Bunshaft (1988) y Frank Gehry (1989), a los que se sumaría Robert Venturi en 1991. Sin embargo, habría que esperar hasta Thom Mayne en 2005  para encontrar otro estadounidense, y desde entonces ninguno más ha sido seleccionado. La aritmética elemental de la crítica arquitectónica nos dice, por tanto, que Estados Unidos cuenta con un Pritzker por cada 40,7 millones de habitantes, muy lejos de Portugal, que con 10,32 millones ya ha obtenido dos, y de Japón, que con sus cinco premiados toca a uno por cada 21,16 millones, casi en empate técnico con el Reino Unido (atrás queda México, con su aún único premio relegado a los comienzos del galardón).

Esta proyección internacional ha soslayado sin embargo alguna de las carencias que han propiciado algunas controversias de los Oscar, como la relativa al #OscarsSoWhite de 2015, si bien la diversidad racial, fuera de los casos de Japón y del nacionalizado Pei, ha sido, por ponerlo generosamente, limitada. Siempre habrá cínicos que vean en la nominación de Wang Shu en 2012 una maniobra de marketing similar a la de los filmes de Hollywood cuando introducen actores asiáticos para abrirse camino en el mercado chino. También habrá quien opine que galardonar a B.V. Doshi es un gesto de paternalismo occidentalista, que premia su relación con Le Corbusier. No seré yo quien haga tan injustas apreciaciones. Tampoco seré yo, al hilo del movimiento Time’s Up, quien acuse de sexismo a la organización, que en 1991 dejó fuera a Denise Scott Brown, pero en 2010 incluyó a un Ryue Nishizawa de cuarenta y pocos años.

Y no lo haré porque, independientemente de lo acertado o extremadamente desacertado de sus decisiones, los criticaremos con igual saña. ¿A quién le tocará el próximo? Como diría Marcos Mundstock, “¡hagan fuego, señores![5]“.

[1] Brendan Gill, “Worldwide Plaza” en The Sky Line, The New Yorker, December 24, 1990; 86.

[2] Fueron exactamente 58: In 1928, I entered the MIT School of Architecture and started my architectural trip. Today, 60 years later, I’ve been given the Pritzker Architecture Prize for which I thank the Pritzker family and the distinguished members of the selection committee for honoring me with this prestigious award. It is the capstone of my life in architecture. That’s it.”

[3] Paul Goldberger, “What Pritzker Winners Tell Us About the Prize”, en Architecture View, The New York Times, May 29, 1988;

[4]Pritzker 2012: Who they gonna call? en Klaustoon’s Blog, February 27, 2012.

[5] Les Luthiers, “Ya el sol asomaba por poniente.” Volumen III (Ion, 1973)

————————–Klaus, “¡Han cantado Pritzker!”, Arquinoir, Arquine nº 84: La Apariencia del Espacio / The Appearance of Space, Verano / Summer 2018.




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