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The Pritzker honour

Architecture’s Nobel honours both the profession and the practitioner. The international award, which is presented annually to honour a living architect or architects, aims to encourage and stimulate not only public awareness of buildings, but also inspire greater creativity within the profession. This year’s winner, David Chipperfield, has an ongoing project in UP

The Pritzker honour

Pritzker Pavilion, Chicago



Rajnish Wattas

“Architecture is the mother art.”

— Frank Lloyd Wright

I FIRST heard of the name Pritzker during my visit to Chicago nearly two decades ago, while attending a summer music festival at the Pritzker Pavilion in the iconic Millennium Park. The park is the heart and soul of the city with its performing arts centres, gardens and museums. Anish Kapoor’s stainless steel sculpture ‘Cloud Gate’ is placed there, attracting huge crowds.

Sir David Chipperfield

The Pritzker Pavilion has a unique design with only the stage covered, and having a seating capacity of nearly 11,000. Its ‘Deconstructionist’ form, designed by Frank Gehry — himself a recipient of the Pritzker award — is shaped like a butterfly whose wings are soaring in the wind, ready to fly. Built in stainless steel, it is both an architectural marvel and an engineering feat. But the vision and funding for it came from the local tycoon and philanthropist Jay Pritzker.

The Pritzker Architecture Prize was founded in 1979. The idea of constituting such a prize occurred to the family — who owned the chain of Hyatt hotels across the world — while building their hotel in Atlanta. The soaring atrium in the design became such a popular feature that the guests loved it. This made them realise the power of architecture on people, cities and culture.

Jay and Cindy Pritzker believed that a meaningful prize would encourage and stimulate not only public awareness of buildings, but also inspire greater creativity within the architectural profession. The international award, considered the Nobel Prize of architecture, is presented annually “to honour a living architect or architects whose built work demonstrates a combination of those qualities of talent, vision and commitment, which has produced consistent and significant contributions to humanity and the built environment through the art of architecture”. The recipients get US $100,000, a citation and, since 1987, a bronze medallion. The designs on the medal are inspired by the work of Chicago architect Louis Sullivan, the mentor of Frank Lloyd, while the Latin-inspired inscription on the reverse — firmitas, utilitas, venustas (firmness, commodity and delight) — is from the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius.

The 2023 winner, Sir David Chipperfield, is a British architect settled in Spain with offices across the globe. “While others conjured flashy icons, he pursued an austere form of modernism exuding solemn gravitas,” says Neda Ulaby, an art critic. As the Pritzker citation puts it, his buildings are “always characterised by elegance, restraint, a sense of permanence and refined detailing”. In an era of excessive commercialisation, over-designing and over-exaggeration, it says, he can always achieve balance.

Chipperfield, who started his career in UK working with Richard Rogers, hardly got any break initially and was mostly doing humble shop interiors. “We had Margaret Thatcher and Prince Charles, the twin towers of negativity towards the architectural profession,” he laments. Ironically, when the then British PM David Cameron visited Germany in 2013, Chancellor Angela Merkel introduced Chipperfield as “one of our most famous German architects”. By now, he had built several museums in Germany, as well as law courts in Barcelona and a library in Des Moines, Iowa, all the while being relatively overlooked in his native Britain.

Chipperfield is also doing a project in India, designing the Mughal Museum (now renamed the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Museum). The museum in Uttar Pradesh was announced in 2015 and work began in 2017. It has not made much progress.

In 2018, when BV Doshi, who was then 91, became the first Indian to win the Pritzker, it was celebration time for the entire nation. When I called up to congratulate him and asked about his first thoughts on getting the news, he let out a hearty laugh: “When I took the call from the Pritzker Foundation, they were most anxious to know that would I be fit enough to travel to Chicago for the award ceremony?” Of course, they knew little about the tenacity of Doshi, whom we lost only a few months ago at 95!

The list of Pritzker laureates is star-studded, with names who changed the skyline of global architecture. The first recipient was Philip Johnson, a disciple of Mies van der Rohe, and the only woman to have got it so far has been the late Zaha Hadid. The laureates include Jorn Utzon, the architect of Sydney Opera House.

Architects like Norman Foster with his famous ‘Gherkin’ building and Renzo Piano, with his pencil-shaped tallest skyscraper of the city ‘The Shard’, ushered in the new-age architecture on the historic London skyline. The list also includes Oscar Niemeyer, a disciple of Le Corbusier who designed the iconic buildings of Brazil’s new capital Brasilia.

It’s not the scale of the work that matters. Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura got it for a relatively lesser known body of work. He visited Chandigarh in 2016 and gave a public lecture on a sports stadium project he had just finished.

The Pritzker Architecture Prize is revered globally not because of the huge money awarded, but for the rigorous process of selection. A high-powered jury, after careful shortlisting of architects, actually visits their projects for a critical appraisal.

Today, in India, we have architecture prizes galore, but there is hardly any stringent on-site scrutiny of the projects chosen. It’s time we got our own Pritzker — nationally honoured and globally respected.

— The writer is former principal of Chandigarh College of Architecture


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