• ritzker Prize winners Renzo Piano, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, and Jean Nouvel (left to right) consider a question from host Charlie Rose during a taping of The Charlie Rose Show, held in Washington, D.C., in June 2008.

    Credit: Jessica McConnell, George Washington University

    Pritzker Prize winners Renzo Piano, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, and Jean Nouvel (left to right) consider a question from host Charlie Rose during a taping of The Charlie Rose Show, held in Washington, D.C., in June 2008.

Thirty years ago in May, Philip Johnson was awarded the first Pritzker Prize, an honor often called—need I say it?—the Nobel of architecture. But which Nobel? The prize for literature, a solitary pursuit? Or peace, which sometimes goes to individuals, but just as often to organizations?

It’s an important question, because it gets to the heart of the problem plaguing the Pritzker. The prize, worth $100,000, is narrowly constructed to recognize the singular genius of the designing mind—so narrowly that in 1991 it went to Robert Venturi but not his partner Denise Scott Brown, with an explanation that the prize could only go to one person.

Presumably this glitch was fixed by 2001, when it went to Pierre Herzog and Jacques de Meuron. But the fact remains that by highlighting a single architect—rather than a team, or a building—the prize grossly distorts the reality of the architectural endeavor. As the country goes through all sorts of economic and social tumult, architecture should clean house, too, starting with the Pritzker.

The prize’s well-intentioned namesake, the late hotel mogul Jay Pritzker, believed, according to his son, “that a meaningful prize would encourage and stimulate not only a greater public awareness of buildings, but also would inspire greater creativity within the architectural profession.”

But what do those goals mean? In a way, architecture is perfectly, even banally, visible. We live in houses and work in office buildings. Granted, that’s not what Pritzker meant. He meant architecture as a practice and an art—though more the latter than the former. No points for building a successful firm; what counts in the Pritzker race is aesthetic vision. Picasso was a great and famous painter, but Álvaro Siza, a great architect, is hardly known outside the profession. The Pritzker tries to rectify that (not that it always works—sorry, Sverre Fehn).

Is this the right way to look at architecture? According to the Pritzker (and its older cousins, the AIA Gold Medal and the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Gold Medal), architectural excellence is one and the same as individual vision. But is it? Especially today, architecture is a collaborative undertaking; we maintain a collective illusion when we say the name on the front door is also the wellspring of a firm’s ideas. Some firms recognize this, which is why we have UNStudio instead of van Berkel & Bos.

  • Clay Risen is the managing editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas. He has written about architecture for Metropolis, The New Republic, and Slate. He lives in Washington, D.C.
    Clay Risen is the managing editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas. He has written about architecture for Metropolis, The New Republic, and Slate. He lives in Washington, D.C.

Moreover, by treating architectural excellence strictly as a question of vision, we make architecture an end in itself, like art, when it’s just as much a means to an end. We don’t just build structures to look at, but to live in and use, and that utilitarian function brings with it a slew of social and moral questions that a narrow focus on aesthetics so often avoids.

Yet the Pritzker—and, let’s be honest, most of the profession—draws no distinction between luxury condos and homeless shelters. And because high-rent condo projects pay better, that’s where the talent, and the recognition, go. Which is the real tragedy of the Pritzker. It’s an award with a big name and a lot of money behind it, but instead of correcting for architecture’s flaws, it reinforces them.

Compare it with three other prizes. The Aga Khan Award goes to buildings, not architects, and to qualify, a structure has to be at least three years old, so judges can evaluate how well it functions. The premium is on utility and strength as much as beauty.

Or consider the Vincent Scully Prize, which sometimes goes to architects but more often to teachers and activists and emphasizes scholarship, preservation, and advocacy. It places architecture within a social and moral context, and it recognizes that shaping the built environment is about more than crafting pretty objects. And there’s the AIA Firm Award, which honors a firm’s collaborative skills as much as its final products.

Unlike its 20th anniversary—accompanied by books, galas, and exhibits—things are pretty subdued on the Pritzker’s 30th. The economy is down, architects are going jobless, and everyone is reflecting on why they got involved in the field in the first place. There’s a real opportunity to reorient architecture toward more humane, socially engaged goals. Getting rid of the Pritzker—at least as we know it today—would be a good start.