Friday, April 22, 2011

76. Predicting The Pritzker Part II: Take a Lesson from Brad and Angelina

The Pritzker would like to consider themselves the Nobel Prize of architecture. I know this because they say it on their website:
(We are) Often referred to as “architecture’s Nobel” and “the profession’s highest honor” 
So let's compare them to the Nobel prize then.

Although on the surface it would appear that the two awards are similar, in actuality they are ideologically worlds apart. The biggest difference can be summed up in what I call the Brad-Angelina Doctrine. I know, I know, just bear with me for a little bit, hear me out. Please! 
I define it as follows:
When a well known celebrity such as Brad Pitt and/or Angelina Jolie commands so much attention from their celebrity status and at the same time begin to feel that their lives are empty and meaningless (usually when it becomes evident to said celebrity that their contribution to humanity and the greater society is just hype and empty vanity) they begin to look for other ways to make a substantive contribution to the world. This usually comes in the form of a strategy that leverages their fame to positively influence or support a worthy cause of their choosing. They may adopt a child from a war-stricken country to show by example that it is cool to do that so others can follow. When disaster hit New Orleans, Brad and Angelina took active roles in charities such as the Make It Right Foundation and Global Green. In the subsequent months, they were also engaged in projects that aided in the rebuilding of many parts of the city. In doing so, they direct some of the massive attention and publicity that they command towards these charitable organizations. In my view this is a good thing, it is a marriage between the meaningful and the meaningless; a mutually beneficial relationship. Brad and Angelina find meaning in their lives and a substantive purpose behind what they do, while foundations like Global Green and the Make it Right Foundation finds a spokes person to raise awareness and raise funds to solve problems.  Say what you want about Brad and Angelina or their motives, but because of the humanitarian work they do, the world is better off because of them.

The Nobel Prize uses a similar strategy by maintaining a relatively even ratio between “the famous” and “the relatively unknown” among their recipients. Take the Nobel Peace prize for example. In 2009, the award was given to President Obama (He is pretty well known I would say). When Obama goes to Oslo to pick up the prize, the whole world media follows him and the world focuses its attention on the Nobel Prize too. This attention elevates the profile of the prize itself and increases its recognition value. For Obama, it gives him credibility, respect and places him among a select group of highly distinguished and respected figures in history. Its a win-win situation for both parties, but more importantly, it is a win for peace in the world, since (whether it works or not) it puts pressure on a sitting U.S. president to live up to a promise to he made to ending the wars that his country was engaged in and work for peace.

The following year, the Nobel Prize was awarded to Liu Xiaobo, an unknown Chinese political prisoner and human rights activist that needed the attention and support of the world. Everyone remembered that Obama won the prize the year before, and suddenly Liu Xiaobo is in the same elevated group as Obama. Suddenly everyone around the world was Googling Liu Xiaobo and finding out more about him, bringing a lot of welcomed attention for the cause he supports. Along with that, came a lot of pressure on the Chinese government to reconsider their human rights policy. Again we have another win-win situation.

In a delicate maneuver, Obama’s notoriety was harnessed and carefully diverted to help a worthy recipient whose cause would have otherwise gone unnoticed. 

Historically the Prize has done similar. In 1964, it gave a relatively unknown preacher named Martin Luther King and his civil rights cause the international attention it needed by awarding him the prize. With the whole world focusing on the conditions of segregation in southern United States, it embarrassed the U.S. government into putting pressure on the segregationist mechanisms that were in place and bringing it to an end. 

The Nobel prize has a benevolent if not humanitarian agenda behind it. Its not just handing out prizes to the latest sensation in the profession or the guy who have racked up the most credentials under his belt. Without reading its mission statement and just looking at their track record alone, it is evident that there is an intent to advance humanity in some sense.

One might say "well, that is the peace prize, that is inherently humanitarian". Well, that's a plausible argument, but I would disagree. They could have opted to give the prize only to the Obamas of the world, but they didn’t: By giving the attention to the un-famous as well, they have made the prize more than just a symbol of status, they have made it into something that is useful to greater society.

But to be fair, let's take a look at another type of Nobel Award. Take Literature for instance (since it is an artistic expression and closest to architecture). The only thing it has in common with the Pritzker is its far less than perfect record. Though not as flagrantly lopsided along gender lines as the Pritzker, its list of recipients are predominantly male and Western. Its first female recipient however, was awarded the prize as early as 1909 and its first non-Western was awarded to a novelist  from  India back in 1913. Beyond this dismal commonality, the prizes begin to differ sharply from here on out.

The choice of Nobel’s recipients in Literature is guided by its founding mission to reward a writer with outstanding works that is moving towards higher ideals. Directly translated from the will of Alfred Nobel, it reads, 
"in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction"
The latter part “ideal direction” implies a built in forward looking predicate imploring the jurors to consider the direction in which the writer’s work is developing and the ideals that they champion.
Although this can be (and often is) liberally interpreted by the jury, in recent years, this has come to mean a kind of idealism championing human rights on a broad scale. So thought is given to the political, social, and/or humanitarian impact the attention of the prize will have on the recipient and what he or she represents. Take the last award in 2010 as an example, it was given to Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa "for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual's resistance, revolt, and defeat". His hugely political writings explores the dangers of power and corruption in Latin America. Think about the consequences the attention a prize such as the Nobel brings to the issues he discusses. The Nobel jurors certainly did.

Unlike architecture, literature is significantly more difficult to grasp across linguistic and cultural barriers.  Never-the-less, the Nobel Literature Prize jury have attempted to consider literature from the greater part of the entire planet for the prize (not just the first world).

The Nobel prize for Literature has been awarded to a greater variety of recipients across a wider spectrum of genres and cultural view points in comparison to the Pritzker.  With the exception of Antarctica, it boasts a list of recipients representing every major continent on the earth including the Caribbean, the Middle-East and even the Republic of Mauritius (a tiny island nation off the southeast coast of the African continent)

With the Nobel Prize in general, you get the feeling that anyone, absolutely anyone who is doing something outstanding to advance the condition of humanity in their respective field can win, no matter where in the world they are: Whether you are neuro-psychiatry professor at Columbia University discovering the physiological basis of memory storage in the nervous system or a banker in Bangladesh pioneering micro-credit for poor people to help them establish credit and financial self-sufficiency, you can win the prize. But more importantly, the attention, especially in the case of the un-famous recipients, will help to advance something useful to the world.
Now, compare this with the Pritzker. Do you see where I am going with this?

The Pritzker only celebrates the celebrated and gives more attention to the already famous. It does not advance architecture or humanity in anyway beyond creating mindless chatter in the hallways and online chat-rooms throughout the architecturally-interested world about whether the latest pick was worthy enough to be crowned America’s top star-architect. 

In this respect, it is much more like the Academy’s Lifetime Achievement Awards that honors the career achievements of retired or near-retired movie-stars: It is sentimental, retrospective and backward looking. Because it is devoid of any underlying mission to advance the profession or humanity, it is ideologically no different than the spectacle of a cosmetic beauty contest.

socially insecure post-pubescent fraternity jocks, preoccupied with prestige and exclusivity

If you are a juror on the Pritzker committee reading this, listen up and pay close attention to what I am about to say.

You ain't no Nobel Prize!

Not yet anyway.

For reasons that I will not get into today, you are highly respected in the architectural world. Every year towards the end of March, tremors of anxiety erupts in the bellies of the worlds most prolific architects as they sit anxiously and await your call and they get extremely upset when you don’t. The rest of us look to you for leadership. You have an enormous influence on our profession. The values that you expose through your choice of recipients send profound currents throughout the world of architecture. As much as I wish it weren’t so, but because of the weight of your influence, you are indeed the profession’s highest honor. This is why I care about what you do.

Although you have the power to harness the attention of the world and focus it on the architect of your choosing, you have not been using it in a very thoughtful way. 

You are hurting architecture!

I get it, you are a first-world boys club. You guys are awarding within first-world boundaries that was created along political lines drawn in the cold war era.

Pritzker Prize distribution Map

compare to the cold war era divisioning of the world

Loosen up! The cold war ended over 20 years ago! 

I know architecture and politics have been inextricably linked together since the beginning of the profession, but I have always thought that as an expression, architecture at its finest is when it is able to transcend politics. An award system such as the Pritzker could be a wonderful vehicle to encourage and challenge architecture to strive towards its highest ideals. Instead you are using it as a shackle to re-enforce our darkest prejudices?  

One Caucasian or Japanese male star-architect from Europe, America or Japan after another, after another?

Look, senior star-architects don’t need more attention than they already have. They are stars because they have mastered networking and publicity skills. Giving them more attention is like giving financial aid to thriving billionaires.

Think a little deeper.

You have heard of Brad and Angelia haven't you? You can take a lesson from them. You guys have been around for 32 years. You are grown ups now, and you are behaving like socially insecure post-pubescent fraternity jocks, preoccupied with prestige and exclusivity to make yourselves feel more important than the next guy. 


Why the long face? ...Cheer up!

Guys, I hate to criticise you at a moment when you are actually stepping in the right direction. With the selection of Eduardo Souto de Mora, a relative unknown, you were celebrating a recipient who has not been celebrated so much, but deserves to be. That's all well and good, but it is also too little too late. Don’t you think?

In the long view of things, I think you guys can cut the exclusive-fraternity-club mentality and be a whole lot more inclusive. I am not saying you should forget about the first-world or star-architects all together. Star-architects worked hard to get where they are. They contribute to architecture by challenging us to look at it in ways we have not done before, and in doing so they inspire us. That is certainly worth recognizing, but they are not the only ones and their ways are not the only ways to contribute to architecture.  What I am saying is that you could mix it up a little bit.

If you really want to advance architecture, throw some of that support and attention to areas where it can make a real difference as well. Think about the political and humanitarian impact the attention of the prize (not to mention the $100,000 prize  money) could have if directed in a socially conscious way.
Look outside your fraternity, outside of Europe, America and Japan. There is a second and third-world too, there is a whole world of talented, committed, architects that exist out there. Architects that are genuinely working to make “significant contributions to humanity”. They live in the Middle-East, Africa, the rest of Asia outside Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia, and the Caribbean. Although you have chosen from South and Central America before, there is a lot more from there as well. 

Look around you, beside Kazuyo Sejima and Zaha Hadid, there are many more architects out there without penises as well; committed, talented and making significant contributions to humanity and architecture. They are architects too.

It is up to you to discover them, reveal them to us and give them the attention they need.

Come on, I believe in you. 

You could do it. I know you can!

Conrad Newel.
Liberating Minds Since August 2007