Thursday, May 28, 2009

60. Play Peter, the Pritzker Peddling Hermit Genius

Some years ago, I used to go around thinking of Frank Gehry as a total schmuck. He went around making these wonky absurd things in god-awful materials and calling it architecture. His mantra seemed to be: lets do something totally stupid looking and ask why not? "I am so playful and whimsical" seemed to be the chant behind every spell he casts. The impression I had of him was that he made architecture look way too easy, you just put a newspaper or binoculars down on a model and voila! instant interesting architecture. And if anyone dares to say that they were annoyed by all this, they were labeled as narrow minded or too "hermetic" in their thinking. All of his detractors were put in this same box. His work, especially his early work was meant to be visually disturbing like his contemporary artist friends.

Then some years later, I reluctantly went into the Guggenheim in New York to see a retrospective of his work there. I came away surprisingly with a very different opinion of him and his work. Although I still did not care much for it, I came away with a lot of respect for him and what he was doing. For the first time I saw all the work that went into each project (or at least the story behind them). There were several different studies and experiments leading up to the final built thing. It was very different from the outward branding campaign that was publicly seen in all the media snippets of him telling an assistant to fold a piece of paper and then yeah! that looks so stupid I love it! The exhibition showed a different attitude, it showed an architect testing and trying out different things, looking at how to solve real problems, attentiveness to solving space, light, materials as any and every architect does.

What I realized was that I was so hypnotized by his branding machine that I was not able to tell the difference between the architect and the branding. The exhibition snapped me out of the spell and allowed me to see the difference.

It was then to my surprise some weeks ago when I learned that Peter Zumthor won the Pritzker prize that I thought to my self. "Oh that's so great, Zumthor is one of my favorite architects. I really like his work and I like his demeanor. He doesn't want publicity, he doesn't make an effort to publish his works in the glossy magazines, and finally the Pritzker prize committee selects such a person. It just goes to show, if you just work hard at what you do and don't worry about publicity or being famous you will be recognized, yada, yada, yada."

I heard my self and suddenly snapped out of it.
"Hey wait a minute!" I thought.
"just hold on one second.
stop the music!
That's not true!

Peter is okay and everything but don't get hypnotized by his branding machine.
Oh...and the Pritzker committee selecting an obscure nobody?...hogwash!

Time for a reality check folks.

Every famous architect whether it is Frank Gehry playing Whimsical Wizard,
Frank Lloyd Wright playing Egotistical Master, or
Rem Koolhaas playing Intellectual Sheep,
all have a branding game-plan that is strategically aimed at getting fame and recognition.
Peter Zumthor playing Hermit Genius is no different.

Fame and recognition does not just happen! you have to work at it! A million dollars will not just fall into your lap if you go to work everyday and do a good job without a plan of how to make it happen, and neither will a Pritzker prize fall into your lap if you just go off deep into the mountains and make good architecture unbeknown to anyone. Fame and recognition like any other career path must be carefully cultivated. Its like the old computer adage "garbage in garbage out": The results that you get are based on what you put in to it.

  • If you put your energy into making good buildings, sooner or later you will realize a good building.
  • If you put your energy into getting famous, sooner or later you will be famous.
  • If you put some energy into making good buildings and some energy into making your self famous, sooner or later you will be a famous architect. It requires a dual effort.
  • If you find a famous architect who put most of his energy into becoming famous, it will be plain to see that he is famous for being famous. I am sure this is not what most people want.
  • If you make a balanced effort in both areas, as Zumthor has done, you will see that too.

Besides doing good work, making interesting and/or quality architecture, putting an effort into being famous and getting recognition means publishing, writing, branding, going on the lecture circuit, building symbolic capital, schmoozing, and basically doing whatever you can to be visible in a positive way. The last time I checked Zumthor had close to a dozen books published in several languages, here is a list, just to name a few: Thinking Architecture, Peter Zumthor Therme Vals, Peter Zumthor Works: Buildings Projects, Atmospheres: Architectural Environments - Surrounding Objects, Corps Sonore Suisse (Swiss Sound Box), Architecture in Vorarlberg, Three Concepts: Thermal Bath Vals‎, A+U Extra Edition: Peter Zumthor and this one titled just plain old "Peter Zumthor". This does not include the countless articles, and magazine publications (glossy & non-glossy) that he has personally written or consented to by providing materials (images of the works, press releases, interviews etc).

You will notice that this is not consistent with the part of his ingenious branding strategy/philosophy of "I don't believe in publishing images of the work because architecture must be experienced first hand". He publishes anyway, because he has to. This elaborate brand is shrouded around a hermitesqe-philosopher-monk like mystique: His official press release photos shows him clad in what looks like a priest's shirt minus the neck collar piece, unpretentious, his arms folded, a stoic glare behind a meticulously trimmed white beard and short militarily disciplined hair cut. His writing style is largely phenomenological and reads like a mythology storybook. He touts beliefs like "I am not a networker, I’m not a difficult star. I’m simply someone who wants to do good work". He is eager to talk about how small his firm is and how selective he is with accepting commissions: "I can’t be bought with money" is his attitude towards clients.

If everyone knew how calculated all of this is, they would be astounded. Not just astounded--it would unveil his mystique and wreck his brand.

At this point, I should wave a flaming disclaimer that I don't believe he is insincere for one moment. You have to believe in your mystique whole heartedly before anyone else can believe in you. It has to come from you and resonate with your core beliefs and who you are. That's the first rule in building a brand or mystique. It would appear that the humble-one has deluded himself into believing that all this does not equal promoting himself and his work. Your job as an aspiring great-one, is to not buy into this delusion. Be aware that it is a brand, and that it is part of an elaborate, premeditated, well managed promotional strategy.

Besides the publications and the mystique-branding, he has certainly not shied away from the lecture circuit: Just google "peter+zumthor+lectures" and you will see a"zumthor wuz here" list of places far and wide where this globe trotting mountain hermit has been speaking ( ie. self promoting). If you are not an incredible networker, you can not pull this off. But lets say you are not an incredible networker and you somehow managed to pull this off, you would have to be either brain-dead or extremely socially repulsive not to come away with a network of friends and contacts that reads like a who-is-who-list in the world of architecture and beyond.

If you can ever find a copy of his resume, you will also see that he has built a treasure chest of symbolic capital: connections, awards, prestigious teaching positions, etc. He has taught at renowned schools from SCI-ARC in Los Angeles to the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University, (far away from the obscure mountains of Switzerland), where he has no doubt rubbed shoulders and schmoozed with the famous and well connected (even some of the Jurors of the Pritzker prize committee).

I am sorry, I just don't believe in random luck. There is a saying "the harder you work the luckier you get". Zumthor certainly worked hard at his luck and now it has paid off. He is a brilliant networker, brander, and self-promoter whether he sees himself that way or not! Three cheers to Mr. Zumthor for a Pritzker well earned. Don't envy him, emulate him!

As for the Pritzker prize committee, they have historically given the prize to well established starchitects: Heavyweights in the field who have largely branded themselves as stars. As we have seen in the previous post, the era of the starchitect is over. The committee finds itself in an awkward position. On the one hand they are way too embarrassed to bestow the award on someone who overtly brands himself as starchitect, and on the other hand they are way too parochial to pick someone outside the establishment. So why not choose a starchitect who brands himself as "I am totally not interested in being a starchitect" What other choice did they have? I am really curious to see who the other candidates were.

In the coming days you will see many articles published about the Pritzker prize winner where he will be lauded for operating outside the establishment in a tiny remote village in the Swiss mountains, far removed from the international architecture scene. They will write about how he eschews the publicity and the promotions. They will describe him as the son of a lowly carpenter. Upon being told that he will receive the prize he made this statement:

That a body of work as small as ours is recognized in the professional world makes us feel proud and should give much hope to young professionals that if they strive for quality in their work it might become visible without any special promotion.

Without any special promotion? huh? When you look at the avalanche of these disingenuous statements, I implore you to resist gazing at the swinging pendulum of this hypnotic branding machine. I offer this statement to young professionals instead:
You won't get wise with the sleep still in your eyes, no matter what your dreams might be.
I am happy for Peter Zumthor, I wish him well, he is a good architect, as I said before, I like his work very much, but please don't insult me with the "I just make good work in tiny Swiss mountain" story line. Success leaves clues, and there are there to see, right before our eyes if we only open them and look.
Good work + Good Promotion = Fame & Recognition.

Conrad Newel

Liberating Minds Since August 2007


news games said...

I totaly agreu woth your formula
Good work + Good Promotion = Fame & Recognition. There are both very important and the are going hand in hand if you want to be known.

Cecilia B. said...

I'd love to see how that theory translates to Glenn Murcutt.

Conrad Newel said...

Hi Cecilia

Thanks for the comment. Its a valid point and I am glad you brought it up.

At the outset, I would say that it is not so much a theory but more so of an observation. However, if it were a theory it would fall squarely in the genre of social science and we all know that social science is not a science. It simply attempts to explain broad patterns of human behaviors and relationships, and of course there are going to be outliers.

Glenn Murcutt and Jørn UtzonJørn Utzon are the first two that jumps to mind when I think of outliers of the Pritzker recipients in terms of their proactive efforts to promote themselves and maintain their fame. (see my note number 19. Promote your name or lose your fame.)

While I don't know enough about Glenn to comment on his stance on branding, a quick look at his resume reveals that he is not too far off from the statistical norms of the typical Pritzker candidate in terms of his credentials and networks.

He is not an isolated architect producing great work unbeknown to the world and suddenly the Pritzker just came to him. There is work involved, there is a career path, there are measures to be taken and he did all the right things. I think part of the myth that surrounds Murcutt (similar to Zumthor) is that here he is this quiet and humble guy just purely focusing passionately on architecture: Just alone doing his thing way off out there in the nether regions of Australia. However, Glenn is part of a tightly knit network of powerful decision makers in the world architecture community. He promotes himself through traveling around the world lecturing and teaching at the top universities and professional organizations where his network extends.

He has extensive international lecturing experience and has lectured at UCLA, Washington University St. Louis, Portland Museum, Maine, Federation of Icelandic Architects, Reykjavic, Danish Academy of Architects and Columbia University. He was a jury member for the competition for the Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Centre New Caledonia, Chair of the jury for the international student competition for a shelter for Alvar Aalto's boat, Jyvaskyla, Finland, chair of the jury for a competition for the 'Peace Park', Gallipoli, Turkey, member of the jury for the spirit of Nature of Wood Architecture International Award, Finland and jury member for the competition for Forum Lake Burley Griffin, Canberra, Australia.

Although he does not self publish as far as I know, he is the subject of many books that promote him and his work. Here is a partial list of some of the books published about him.

'Leaves of Iron : Glenn Murcutt, pioneer of an Australian architectural form’, by Philip Drew, Collins and Angus and Robertson, Sydney (1991). First published by Law Book Company, Sydney (1985)
‘Three Houses – architecture in detail’’ by Elizabeth Farrelly, Phaidon, London (1993)
'Touch This Earth Lightly – Glenn Murcutt in his own words' by Philip Drew, Duffy and Snellgrove, Sydney (1999),
‘Glenn Murcutt – buildings and projects 1962 – 2003’ by Françoise Fromonot, Thames and Hudson, London (2003). First published in an earlier edition by Thames and Hudson (1995)
‘Glenn Murcutt - a singular architectural practice’ by Haig Beck and Jackie Cooper, Images Publishing, Melbourne (2006). First published by Images Publishing (2002).
‘The Architecture of Glenn Murcutt’ by Heneghan, Seyama, Lassen and Gusheh, TOTO, Tokyo (2008)
‘Glenn Murcutt – thinking drawing, working drawing’ ’ Heneghan, Seyama, Lassen and Gusheh, TOTO, Tokyo (2008)
Film documentaries of Glenn Murcutt include 'Touch the Earth Lightly' by Peter Hyatt (of BHP Steel Profile) and TV Channel 9 documentaries produced by Catherine Hunter )

I would assume that he was not an unwilling participant in the publication effort.

Again, Good Work + Good Promoton = Fame in Architecture

Cecilia B. said...

So true... it's the way he plays it, making himself known while trying to convince everyone that it is not a deliberate decision and that he hates it... genius.