Beyond Buildings


The Dream Team

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Zaha has won another prize. That in itself is nothing new: Ms. Hadid, undoubtedly one of the most interesting and accomplished architects in the world, has won just about every one for which she is eligible, including the Pritzker. The latest award to fall her way, the Praemium Imperiale, also puts her in line with such obvious recent choices as Frank Gehry, Herzog & de Meuron, Peter Zumthor, Richard Meier, and Jean Nouvel. What is more interesting to me is the laureates with which she shares this year's prize: the photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, the sculptor Richard Long, the pianist Alfred Brendel and the playwright Tom Stoppard.


This particular array of $158,000 winners is especially notable because Hadid is one of the architects whose contributions to the field have not necessarily lain in the making of space. Rather, it is the way in which she collaged together a geometric essence inherent in our reality and melded it into icons of fluidity that makes her work so important. In a world in which everything moves, from goods to people to data, at all times, Zaha Hadid has become the monument maker of a global culture.


If you are looking for somebody who has preserved space as a bulwark against such continual mutability, then you might do better to look at some of her co-winners. Similarly, if you want the articulation of a form that retains a sense of materiality, or if you want to structure social relation in such a way that you can be aware of them, then those in this list who do not make buildings might have just as much, if not more, to show us.


Hiroshi Sugimoto especially has made powerful architecture. In a series of photographs of theaters, he kept his camera open long enough that the whole movie became a perfect white square at the center of the image, a window into pure abstraction whose reflected light lovingly brought to life every detail of the surrounding theater. He came closest to architecture when he was commissioned to photograph the world's greatest modern monuments (for an exhibition at Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art) and rendered them as fuzzy abstractions that fixed their formal strength. More recently he has even been photographing lighting, making that grandest of natural phenomena intelligible in the space of the frame.


Hiroshi Sugimoto, Theaters (UA Walker, New York)

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Theaters (UA Walker, New York)


 Hiroshi Sugimoto, Villa Savoie, Le Corbusier

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Villa Savoye, Le Corbusier


Similarly, Richard Long, whose work consists of stone circles and lines, has abstracted from nature the very essence of placemaking, the "hic stans" (I am here) that places us in a world too big to comprehend. But such contributions to architecture are obvious. It is in the strangely precise, and yet recalibrated notes of Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto, interpreted by Brendel, that we can find an aural space that expands and contracts beyond the confusions of the everyday. It is in the intricacies of Tom Stoppard's plays, especially his recent trilogy The Coast of Utopia, that the grand idea of how we have struggled to make our world new, and yet be at home in it, is evoked through the intricacies of words and staging.


Richard Long, Red Slate Circle

Richard Long, Red Slate Circle


There is no denying that Zaha Hadid is a great architect. But her buildings are becoming icons of property development or city-making, symbols of computer power and expressions of a global taste culture as much as they are explorations of space, place, and structure. Sugimoto, Long, Stoppard, and Brendel, each in his own way, might have more to show us of a world that we need to figure out and how we might do that in form, space and place, than Ms. Hadid. This year's Praemium Imperiale winners are not unexpected, but they do remind us of who out there is doing it and doing it beautifully. Together, they are a virtual dream team of an architecture waiting to be made.




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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.