Wednesday, February 29, 2012

81. The little Pritzker Committee that Almost Could

Last night “Gudle” who blogs from China tipped me off to the fact that Wang Shu had won the Pritzker. My immediate reaction was:

 “Wow! I am almost surprised.”

Why almost?

As a pretext you can read here, here and here.

Although Wang departs moderately from the standard statistical norms, if you look closely he fits the typical biographical profile. Compare with SANAA’s profile here:
You can see that he and his wife Lu Wenyu had a breakthrough stage in their practice where they were being published a lot. Although I did not know what they looked like, I immediately recognized the Ningbo Museum because it had been on the cover of Mark Magazine a few issues back. They were not just local stars anymore; they were on the world stage.
Next, if you look at their professional biography, they had already started to be recognized by other institutions. This is what the Pritzker committee looks for, it does not take risks. It chooses safe bets that have been pre-vetted by other institutions. The pair has won the German Shelling Architecture Prize, and in 2011 they received the French Gold Medal from the Academy of Architecture. Their works were recognized by the Holcim Awards for Sustainable Construction in the Asia Pacific and the Architecture Art Award of China. That many awards mean these folks have been properly vetted and primed for the Pritzker.

To add to this, he has been the head of the architecture department of the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou since 2000, and had already started the global lecture and teaching circuitjust like Zumthor before him. His visiting lecturer and professorship around the world included Harvard University, University of Texas, UCLA and University of Pennsylvania. The holy grail of Pritzker credentials is the Harvard teaching position which almost every recent awardee has under his belt.

Not only that, they have done their promotion home work too; they participated in the Venice Biennale and exhibited in Hong Kong, Brussels, Berlin, and Paris.
The third a final key is the Seminal built project which usually comes through winning a major competition and demonstrates artistic pragmatic and intellectual components. Again we are looking at the Ningbo Museum. You can read more about why this is so significant in a seminal way here.

What is the least surprising but at the same time incalculably shocking is their attitude toward the female members of our species. I am now convinced that there must be some sort of secret oath taken by all incoming jurors (both male and female) to uphold the dominance of the male specie over the female in the starchitecture world. It is mind boggling. They had a scandal some years ago when they gave the prize to Robert Venturi without acknowledging his professional partner and wife Denise Scott Brown: They were clearly in the wrong and the whole world agreed. Next, the reverse situation came up when they decided to give the work SANAA - Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa; in this case Ryue was evidently the sidekick that eventually became an equal. If they were to play Batman & Robin, Sejama would be Batman and Ryue would be Robin. Let’s just face that fact. Sejema would ride the bike and Rue would sit in the side pouch and say “holy great architecture you have made Sejema! I like it”. He is about 10 years her junior and started out as an intern in her office. Yet when the Pritzker was looking at the body of work of the company that was founded and led by Sejema years before she made Ryue a partner, they gave the award to the both of them. It was the fair thing to do.

Now that we have another husbandand and wife team slightly in the reverse situation, here is your chance Pritzker committee to right your wrong and turn the page on a past that we would all rather forget. But what did you do? You poured salt on the wound for Christ sake!

WANG Shu and LU Wenyu founded the Amateur Architecture Studio together in 1998. Lu was not an apprentice she was a full partner right from the beginning and if they are a husband and wife team as any married couple knows they discuss important issues together and make decisions collectively. So when Wang was asked if he thought his wife should be sharing the prize with him? This is what he had to say:

“Yes, every time when I finish the first sketch of a building, she is the first one to see it. And if she doesn’t like it, I go back and draw it again.”

Ok, to be fair let’s give the Pritzker commitee a chance to explain themselves. When they were asked why Lu Wenyu was not was given the prize as well, Martha Thorne, executive director of the Pritzker jury said this in their defense:

"The prize goes to a person or people (not a firm). The jury carefully evaluates all aspects of the professionals nominated for the prize. When it is a team effort (as most of architecture is), this is especially challenging. In the case of this year's winner, the jury looked at his contributions to the built work, teaching, theory, etc., and felt that he was exceptional and worthy of the prize."


That’s your defense?

What are you Mitt Romney in a skirt?
That’s the most political non-answer I have ever heard and it does not even make any sense either.

The prize goes to a person or people (not a firm)?

Oh...that’s right. I forgot, Hertzog and de Meuran is that two headed creature that escaped from the preppie circus back in the day and SANAA is an acronym for the other two headed monster that had their start on the Muppet Show. They are person/people not firms.


I know it is challenging...but Lu is an educator too, and I would think that she stands on the same theoretical level as her husband as well. To be really honest, their work is not very theoretical to begin with, and that’s one of its nicer qualities in my opinion.

You know what gets to me?

Its that they play this silly public relations game where they put the person you think would be most disgusted by it to be their face of defense to the public (in this case, one of the female members of the jury). You know when the politician gets caught in a sex scandal and they bring their wives to stand beside them and smile while they fake an apology? It’s like saying to everyone out there: “Hey, if the bitch is down with it then what are you all yapping about?”

I will say I am neither convinced by your explanation nor your attitude and leave it at that.

Ok! those blunders aside, here is what surprised me.

Firstly, they are doing something that in my view for the first time genuinely contributes to humanity in some way. Wang Shu and Lu Wenyu’s work demonstrates a sensitivity to their local traditions and a deliberate resistance to China’s blatant lack of regard for its own architectural heritage. By giving them the spotlight, the committee has made them in some way an example for other architects to follow. Perhaps this attention could bring a focus on what they are doing to the broader architecture and building industry in China. Perhaps it give some umph to those architects and developers in China who would like to go in that direction but thought they were alone. Perhaps it may put a question mark behind China’s thirst for the new and disdain for the old. It may or it may not but it is worth a try.

You see little Pritzker Committee I knew you had it in you. I knew there was an ounce humanity and substance in you. Last year I implored you to take a Lesson from Brad & Angelena and in your own way you did. You went a little outside your comfort zone by choosing someone in Asia outside of Japan. That’s a little step in my book but a big step for you non-the-less, but that’s how we all start. No?

You also chose to cut down on the age limit. Instead of a European Caucasian architect around the age of 62.97, you went with an Asian male at the ripe young age of 48. Well don’t hurt yourself. I know that must have been quite a challenge but you did it. That’s what counts.

You guys remind me of the little train that could. It came up on that hill and it kept on saying
“I think I can, I think I can, I think I can”
and suddenly it did.

Now all you have to add to your mantra is:

“Women are our equals, women are our equals, women are our equals”

It doesn’t quite have the same ring to it but it just might work.

Conrad Newel

Liberating Minds Since August 2007

Related Notes:
76. Predicting The Pritzker Part II: Take a Lesson from Brad & Angelena
75. Predicting The Pritzker Part 1
68. Take a lesson from SANAA
60. Play Peter, the Pritzker Peddling Hermit Genius


Gudule said...

I would like you to tell us who are those women you would give the Pritzker Prize to. I am very curious. By the way, i read some stuff about "famous women" around the world or "women with power" and most of the analysis was: "we, women, we do what we think is right, we care about what our job is about (politics, architecture, art...) and we are always criticizing ourselves and in permanent doubt, and find our lives quite fulfilling this way. While men care more about all the fuss, the spotlights, the richness and the pretty cars." That is very "cliché", yup I agree, but I definitely think there is some truth in it and the answer maybe is: their women works as architects are maybe worth the Pritzker, but maybe they do not care :)

Myriam B. Mahiques said...

Excellent! I´m an architect, my husband too, we´ve been working together since 1987 :) Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Why doesn't the Nobel Prize organization finally grant a prize for architects so we can stop calling the pritzker the "Nobel of Architecture" already?! Never in my life will I be able to understand how Philip Johnson got any award for architecture, non the less the "Nobel" of architecture. The people who grant the Pritzker can just suck it.

Anonymous said...

You cannot blame this entirely on the Pritzker foundation. Wang Shu has been promoting himself for many years now as "Wang Shu", not as "Wang Shu-one half of Amateur Architecture Studio along with Lu Wenyu". I do not even know what Lu Wenyu looks like. She is never in any publicity photos or videos with him. He promotes himself as "Wang Shu-the leader of Amateur Architecture Studio". Who knows why? Maybe Wang Shu really is responsible for more of the work produced by their office, therefore more worthy of the prize. Or maybe Lu Wenyu is just shy and doesn't want to deal with the publicity the way Wang has to, so she stays out of it and lets him get all the glory. Of course Wang is going to get the prize as a solo entity; prior to winning the prize he was known internationally simply as Wang Shu with little to no mention of his wife. SANAA has always promoted themselves as a team. They show up together for publicity and lectures. They have separate offices but the work produced by Sejima's or Ryue's solo offices is not nearly as influential as the work produced by SANAA. Give me a break. Yes the Pritzker Jury is biased but the architects themselves are promoting themselves in a certain way as well and you do not even touch upon this fact in your article. You write well and you give very useful facts, but you yourself are biased a well.