Beyond Buildings


For a Nobel Prize in Architecture

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As the usual controversy over this season’s Nobel Prize awards swirls around whether or not President Obama had done enough, what it means that a woman received the Prize for work outside of the traditional field, and why none of what we think of as our great American writers received the Literature Award, I keep thinking: wouldn’t it be nice if there was one for architecture?


I know, there is the Pritzker, which we of the chattering classes (though not the Prize organization itself) often call the Nobel for architecture. That is mainly so that we can define the Prize in an easy-to-understand manner. The Pritzker is a prize for achievement in built form, however. It goes to master builders and, despite all the criticism you can have about such prizes, does a good job of it. It has a nice mix of known and unknown recipients that are mainly worthy, and only seems to veer off course when it awards somebody more for his (very rarely her) name, rather than for the quality of his built work—Jean Nouvel for me would be a case in point.


But the whole point of the Nobel Prizes is that they award those individuals who have changed, rather than affirmed, the status quo in their field. When it works, it awards experimenters and risk-takers, speculators, mind-blowers, and missionaries—not those who are just good at their craft. To receive a Nobel in science, you have to do something that lets other people invent new gizmos, or changes the way we understand reality. To receive the Pritzker, you have to make good buildings.


What we need is an award for those activities that fundamentally change the way we physically frame the relationship we have to other humans and the world around us. We need an award for opening up new spaces, exploring new landscapes, and creating new ways of thinking about the human-made environment. To win the award, you would not have to make good buildings, but create the circumstances in which others could do so, or even just change our basic relations tot he world around us.


Practitioners such as Rem Koolhaas or Zaha Hadid, both of whom have won Pritzkers, would certainly fit the bill. So would somebody such as Peter Eisenman or the late Aldo van Eyck, whose influence has been immense, but whose buildings have often been less than successful. I would nominate the Congress for New Urbanism, though I fundamentally disagree with its precepts. The Barack Obama Perhaps Premature Award could go to Brad Pitt’s New Orleans effort, Make it Right.


I would go further than the field of practicing architecture, though. I would look at landscape architects such as George Hargreaves or Adriaan Geuze, at interior designers/special effects wizard/experience framer David Rockwell, or even Apple, for fundamentally changing the way we experience our physical reality. I would have my own favorites, such as Liz Diller and Ric Scofidio, or Lebbeus Woods, but realize they might be too esoteric. How about an artist such as James Turrell or Olafur Eliason, or a filmmaker such as the late Stanley Kubrick, whose images we still mine? A belated shout-out to Charles Jencks, for changing the field of architecture more than almost any practicing architect? Or to Habitat for Humanity, for getting us involved with the environment is a very real way?


The point would be to award thinking and making that makes the world better by design and design thinking. That is what Alfred Nobel wanted to do: after making his society worse by filling it with explosives, he sought to make it better by encouraging achievements that would enhance the lot of humans. I believe that architecture and design can do that as well. Architecture can build a better world, and offering an alternative to the satisfaction of making a business operate in bland efficiency or a household have a familiar home, would encourage those who otherwise receive no reward for their experimental work.



Comments (1 Total)

  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 5:29 AM Friday, October 16, 2009

    No. There are already far too many prizes in architecture and it would end up being judged by the same old same olds and being awarded to the same old same olds. Who gives a toss if Rem or Zaha has won the RIBA Gold, the Pritzker AND a Nobel? How can that possibly improve the lives of the ordinary man or woman? It would give the press something to write about, though, which is where I suspect your idea both originates and terminates. Terrible idea.

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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.