Whether it’s the Oscars or the Pritzkers, it is always a fool’s errand to second-guess jury choices. I mean, I liked Everything Everywhere All at Once, but really?
Nonetheless, given the tremendous outpouring of support for the selection of Sir David Chipperfield as the recipient of the latter award this year, let me add a critical note. I am not so sure the quality of this body of work deserves the acclaim and notoriety that the Pritzker Architecture Prize offers.
I am not so sure the quality of this body of work deserves the acclaim
Chipperfield’s work on the whole is bland, unimaginative, and overly grandiose. It also contains few or any of the traditional building blocks of architecture: good spaces framed by beautifully proportioned structures.
It is interesting that the Pritzker jury concentrated mostly on Chipperfield’s renovation projects, which are outliers in his oeuvre: the Neues Museum in Berlin, and the similar, more recent effort at the Procuratie structure on San Marco Square in Venice.
Undoubtedly these are among Chipperfield’s greatest contributions to both architecture and the communities it serves. The Neues renovation in particular revealed to the general public an important approach to the use of historic structures. By contrasting simple, abstract new elements and materials with the original building’s textures, which the architect revealed and reveled in, Chipperfield showed how we could make history visible.
Though numerous other architects had used a similar approach before, such as David Ireland in his 500 Capp Street House of 1975, nowhere else had this technique been applied at such a scale and for such a prominent project. The renovation was a popular and critical success, despite some quibbles about the wastefulness of the layout and Chipperfield’s quirky touches – especially his attempts to abstract neoclassical arches and columns – and helped him secure a successful sideline in such projects.
If the jury were looking in particular at renovation, however, there are so many firms that do it much better. Let me offer the Belgian designers who call themselves 51N4, or the Dutch firm Superuse, which have offered radically new, highly efficient, and breathtakingly beautiful models of how to reimagine structures.
The mainstay of what Chipperfield has produced is new construction. There his range is limited and his hand heavy. Whether he is designing courts or office buildings, apartments or museums, his default mode is to make boxes, present and structure them with grids he carries out mostly in white, and open them up with endless reaches of tall colonnades.
Because the buildings are so simple they photograph well
Inside, the spaces are generally orthogonal, taller than they are wide, and monotonous. There is little variety, virtually no expression of local conditions or traditions other than variations of color and material, and no sense of sequence or rhythm of uses. The buildings just sit there: big, abstract, aloof, and boring.
Occasionally, Chipperfield will add an expressive element, such as the sawtooth skylights at the Jumex Collection in Mexico City, but mostly he seems content to just churn out cubes and rectangles, adjusting the size and proportions of the grids and columns, and meting out the big spaces according to the amount of square meters required by the program.
Because the buildings are so simple they photograph well, and they also distinguish themselves from their surroundings with a blankness and absence of detail. This has led to the impression that Chipperfield has produced a new kind of monumentality that is elegant and recessive.
But visiting these structures has almost invariably been a disappointment to me. Since his early experiments in contextualism, like the rightly acclaimed Henley Rowing Museum, and in rough-and-ready grandeur, such as in the studio for sculptor Anthony Gormley, he has created buildings that, I think, have few redeeming qualities to balance the vast amounts of concrete poured to construct them, the resources spent on them, the utter repetitiveness of their interiors, or the space they take up in communities around the world.
By choosing Chipperfield as the winner of the Pritzker, the jury seems to be indicating that they have not forgotten the traditional core of architecture – that is, the production of monuments by white men in Europe and the United States. They have balanced recent choices of architects with other identities (Diébédo Francis Kéré) or a social agenda that makes the production of grandeur and timelessness more difficult (Lacaton & Vassal) with the desire to choose work that is risk-averse and, in many ways, traditional.
What they have overlooked among the architects working in the geographic or racial mainstream of architecture is just as interesting. For quite some time, the Pritzker jury (whose makeup shifts continually) has avoided architects whose work is expressive or experimental in form.
It reinforces the notion that architecture is the production of big, monumental buildings in a generic mode
The most obvious omission in this mode is Wolf Prix of Coop Himmelb(l)au, but there are countless other architects, from those using computers to steer their gestures (Ma Yansong, Ben van Berkel), to those breaking boxes and expressing materials in more traditional ways (Steven Holl, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, Antoine Predock) who are keeping alive the idea that architecture can respond to changing social and environmental conditions through form.
Then there are those whose work flips and reverses our expectations about architecture and how it functions in these evolving conditions. The most obvious omissions here are MVRDV and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, but behind them in age and accomplishments are figures such as Bjarke Ingels or Andrés Jaque.
And these are just the most obvious figures: if the jury spent some time in a country such as China or Chile, they could find many more candidates in the mode of Amateur Architecture, the firm they, in my opinion deservedly, plunked out relative obscurity to put in the global spotlight with their award several years ago.
I personally believe that the conceptual side of architecture, which focuses on the questions of why and how we make buildings first and foremost, should be the area of foremost concern to the Pritzker Award. Here lies the most hopeful avenue for a discipline that must confront issues of social justice and environmental doom above all else.
If, however, they want architecture to stick to its knitting, why not pick one of the firms that has been producing beautiful work for decades, at scale and with variety and sensitivity? Here Mecanoo, Sauerbruch Hutton, or Neri&Hu come to mind.
What is pernicious about the choice of Chipperfield for the Pritzker Prize is that it reinforces the notion that architecture is the production of big, monumental buildings in a generic mode with little concern for the communities they serve. It also puts forward an example of what constitutes good architecture that does not attain the highest, or in many cases even the lowest, standards of traditional aesthetics and functional service. I look forward to a better choice next year.
Aaron Betsky is director of Virginia Tech School of Architecture and Design and was president of the School of Architecture at Taliesin from 2017 to 2019. He has written more than a dozen books on architecture, design and art.
The main image shows the Taoxichuan Grand Theatre in China, completed by Chipperfield in 2022.
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