Alejandro Aravena
Courtesy Holcim Foundation Alejandro Aravena

The recent announcement of the granting of the Pritzker Architecture Prize to Alejandro Aravena has elicited some criticism. The critiques have taken two tacks: first, that Aravena is an activist, not a true architect; and, second, that his winning the award was inappropriate because, for the seven years before this year, Aravena was a member of the Pritzker Prize jury.

The first of these quibbles is, I think, the easiest to answer. The most vocal of the nay-sayers has been Zaha Hadid Architects partner and parametricism prophet (and prolific Facebook poster) Patrik Schumacher. In his response to the announcement, Schumacher wrote that the Prize is “part of a wider trend in contemporary architecture that in my mind signals an unfortunate confusion, bad conscience, lack of confidence, vitality and courage bout the discipline’s own unique contribution to the world.” That “unique contribution” would be, as he puts it, “advancing the next stage of high density urban civilization.”

Dongdaemun Design Plaza. Seoul, South Korea
Euijeong Lee/Flickr via Creative Commons license Dongdaemun Design Plaza. Seoul, South Korea

I am not completely sure what Schumacher means by this particular problem, but he has argued continuously and strenuously that only the approach he favors—which he has termed “parametricism”—is appropriate in any kind of design situation. I would disagree, and I think many people would as well. Zaha Hadid, Hon. FAIA, and her firm have produced quite a few beautiful buildings (for which she rightly won the Pritzker in 2004, before many of them were even built) and Schumacher’s theories are intriguing, but it is exactly as contributions to the reweaving and intensification of the urban fabric that they are most problematic, as I saw recently in Seoul at their beautiful cultural center.

The deeper criticism, that Aravena is “just” an activist and not a “real” architect ignores a body of work that reaches beyond the contributions he has made to social housing and his activities arguing for a renewed focus on architecture as a catalyst not just for better living conditions, but for social change. I have not seen his buildings in person, but they certainly look stunning in photographs, and I trust my friends and colleagues who have come back from Chile raving about their spatial qualities, formal resolution, and responses to both context and program.

Tadeuz Jalocha

In many ways, the Pritzker Jury is quite conservative: It looks for people who make buildings that astonish through such spatial, material, and contextual qualities, not because of whatever ideas they embody. It awards a collection of built masterpieces, not experiments. Should we have an award for the latter? Absolutely, although I am not sure it would go to Schumacher and his (by now rather old-fashioned) belief in the saving grace of computer-driven design.

The question of insider dealing is more difficult for me to answer. There just are not that many architects out there who are changing the world—in either a social or an aesthetic sense—through good buildings. As in any field, there are always many who believe that the system is rigged, and that the (mainly) boys’ club is a closed one. I would argue, on the contrary, that a thoroughly interconnected world of publicity and education, boosted by the myriad curious eyes of the countless participants on social media who instantaneously post what might have any visual appeal on Instagram, Pinterest, or Facebook, is quite efficient and encompassing at finding good work anywhere in the world, weeding out the mediocre, and elevating the truly good.

China Academy of Art, by Amateur Architecture Studio (Wang Shu and Lu Wenyu).
Courtesy Deane Madsen China Academy of Art, by Amateur Architecture Studio (Wang Shu and Lu Wenyu).

The system is not infallible, nor has it ever been. There will always be glad-handers such as the late Charles Gwathmey who rise to (near the) top, and there will always be those doing amazing work in backwaters or with a publicity-shy attitude that lets them slip through the net. One of my guilty pleasures is finding out the latter, although these days—as the selection of Wang Shu as the 2012 Pritzker laureate (although pointedly not his partner, Lu Wenyu) made clear to me—it is becoming more and more difficult.

The result is indeed that the good architects show up in all the competitions and biennales, are asked to teach around the world, and then wind up on selection committees and juries everywhere. When I am asked to join such a panel these days, I have to warn those inviting me that chances are high that I will have worked with, been on a similar panel with, have written about, or otherwise have a relationship with the majority of the final candidates.

All that being said, should the Pritzker have waited a year or two before making this selection? In my opinion, yes. At 49, Aravena is still young (by architecture’s standards), and the publicity he will receive as the result of curating the Venice Architecture Biennale will undoubtedly lead to future commissions. There are plenty of architects who, I believe, have been waiting too long for the Jury’s nod and who could have received the Award in the meantime—Williams/Tsien, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and Steven Holl, FAIA, being the most obvious in this country alone.

Elemental None

Having said all of this, I still remain delighted with Aravena’s win. It makes me all the more eager to go to Chile, where he seems to be part of a cohort of designers who are combining formal panache with social agendas. If the Pritzker Architecture Prize shines the spotlight on their work, it will have achieved a goal beyond making it clear that social housing and good buildings are both important in the discipline and can be intertwined.