Handicapping the Pritzker Prize, 2013 Edition

After last year’s successful pick of dark horse Wang Shu (5:1 odds), a continuation of my Pritzker Prize series seems in order. No promises for a similar success this year, but I think that Shu might be a bellwether for changes in the ambitions of the prize. Perhaps the jury as currently composed will  be able to set aside the Eurocentrism of decades past and see to it that a more broad array of architects are on the list of nominees.

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5:1 – Kengo Kuma (Japanese, b. 1954)

The reason Kuma’s work is so appealing is hard to put your finger on, but I think it’s mostly his experimentation with materials. In the past few years a number of his completed projects have made the rounds of architecture publications, and they have all been wonderfully inventive and quite beautiful. Kuma also strives to make an environmentally conscious architecture that is also aesthetically robust.

5:1 – David Adjaye (British, b. Tanzania 1966)

Adjaye’s profile has never been larger, with the National Museum of African-American History and Culture on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. under construction, and with his studio’s incredible churning of publications. It would be a great boon for the Pritzker to be awarded to an architect of African descent, and Adjaye is the strongest candidate in my opinion.

8:1 – Giancarlo Mazzanti (Colombian, b. 1963)

The Pritzker hasn’t typically rewarded architects whose work has much of a social agenda, but Mazzanti is an example of an architect whose work is aesthetically daring and socially active. South American architects are extremely underrepresented in the Pritzker canon, and Mazzanti would be a great choice to start changing that.

8:1 – Liz Diller (American, b. Poland, 1954) and Ricardo Scofidio (American, b. 1935) of Diller Scofidio + Renfro

Lincoln Center is done. The Hirshhorn Bubble continues to incite controversy. The High Line is ongoing and continues to accrue much acclaim. The Broad and Berkeley Art Museums are under construction, as are several large academic buildings. Now’s the time for DS+R in my opinion.

10:1 – David Chipperfield (British, b. 1953)

In recent years, Chipperfield has built up a significant portfolio of slick minimalist public buildings around the world and in Great Britain, and he just curated the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale which bade well for Kazuyo Sejima in 2010. That being said, Chipperfield is a well-known British architect at the height of his career, which doesn’t align with the stated ambition to award those whose careers are on the upswing.

10:1 – Alberto Campo Baeza (Spanish, b. 1946)

The Pritzker has recently rewarded architects whose work has maintained consistency and quality over time, and Campo Baeza is a perfect example. Both his small houses and large cultural buildings use the same minimal vocabulary and impeccable detailing. The clarity and reductiveness of his work is seductive but leaves many people cold.

10:1 – Sou Fujimoto (Japanese, b. 1971)

By far the youngest candidate on my list, Fujimoto has been on a meteoric rise the past two or three years, raising his international profile by exhibiting at the Venice Biennale, and promoting his works worldwide through photographs by Iwan Baan and others. It has just been announced that he will be building this year’s Serpentine Pavilion in London, and the vast majority of architects invited to do so were or became Pritzker winners. He has a strong chance.

12:1 – Manuel & Francisco Aires Mateus (Portuguese, b. 1963 & 1964)

Rising fast, the brothers Aires Mateus are nominated for the Mies van der Rohe prize this year, and exhibited an impressive work at the Venice Biennale. Good candidates.

15:1 – Steven Holl (American, b. 1947)

I think Holl has become a long shot. If they were going to give it to him, they would have done so by now. As a world-famous American architect in his 60s, he doesn’t fit the bill for the new Pritzker.

15:1Sean Godsell (Australian, b. 1960)

His rather amazing Design Hub at RMIT opened this year, after almost two decades of residential work that has mined the potentials of architectural skins and surfaces. I think he would be a great choice. Boxes have never looked as good.

20:1 – Ben Van Berkel (Dutch, b. 1957) and Caroline Bos (Dutch, b. 1959) of UN Studio

Though UN Studio seems to be quiet lately, its collaborative partners are still strong candidates because of the well-considered balance of theorizing and building that makes up their practice. The Mercedes Benz Museum they completed a few years ago remains one of my favorite buildings of the last decade, and seems to have been overlooked at the tail end of our worldwide obsession with  iconic architecture.

25:1 – Bijoy Jain (Indian, b. 1965) of Studio Mumbai

Studio Mumbai has increased its international profile in the past couple of years, exhibiting at the Venice Biennale and the Victoria & Albert in London, and recently publishing a monograph in El Croquis. Their work is intensely regional and specific, but its lessons for the West about integration with craftspeople and constructors are invaluable.

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I have admitted that it is unlikely Peter Eisenman, Toyo Ito, Daniel Libeskind or Wolf Prix will ever win the Pritzker, so I’ve dropped them from my list. I also think that in the interest of diversification, it’s not likely that a younger North American architect will win this year either. That disqualifies Michael Maltzan, Brad Cloepfil, John & Patricia Patkau, and several others who would have been strong contenders ten or fifteen years ago.


Classic Book Review: Reyner Banham’s “A Concrete Atlantis”

This is an extremely remarkable little book that has reoriented my perception of the humble (and not so humble) industrial buildings that surround me. Conversational and highly personal, it explores an overlooked influence on early Modernism, a set of photographs published by Walter Gropius in 1913. Banham traces the typological developments that led to the distillation of two American building types Gropius selected – concrete grain elevators and “daylight” factories – and points out their unbelievably rapid obsolescence. These types lived on in the factory aesthetic of European Modernism, and Banham’s third chapter outlines how.

Part of what makes this book remarkable is Banham’s hybrid memoir/historical formatting, which exposes the methodology of his research. He prioritized close reading not in abstract, academic terms, but first hand visitation of buildings, a rite of passage that builds credibility for any historian of our built heritage, and is a phase of research I often find myself forgoing in the internet age. Unfortunately, many of the buildings Banham visited have since been demolished, and in exploring their history he illustrates how invaluable our industrial heritage can be  and the low esteem in which we hold its monuments. It’s also unfortunate that this book, published over 25 years ago, hasn’t caused a change in perception with regard to these irreplaceable buildings. They continue to decay and be demolished at an alarming rate. They might be gone before we know it.

The MIT Press, April 1989


Local Wonder: Wolfe Center for the Arts, Bowling Green

When I first heard that Bowling Green State University had commissioned the internationally renowned architecture firm Snohetta to design their new performing arts building, I was cautiously optimistic. For their first building in North America, the Oslo-based office had taken a surprisingly small commission in a surprisingly backwater location. Best known for their elegant landform buildings for the Oslo Opera House and Bibliotheca Alexandrina, how well could their work translate to an unmemorable campus devoid of the drama of those sites? What would their response be to the soporific landscape of Northwest Ohio?

Photograph by the author

In gestural terms, the new Wolfe Center for the Arts at BGSU is a rousing success. Rising dramatically from a flat site, its metal panels and tilted geometry have introduced a completely new vocabulary to an otherwise banal group of campus buildings. A glazed facade terminates this rise, cantilevering over the entry and imposing itself on the adjacent parking lot.

Photograph by the author

The Wolfe Center lobby is light-filled and well appointed. It is dominated by a grand concrete stair/bleacher at its center, a clever element which effectively ties together the room’s two functions: campus lounge and posh reception area. This striking element will no doubt be used as both a place to study and a people-watching perch similar to the famous stair and balconies at Charles Garnier’s Paris Opera. The other dominant lobby element is a large skylight at the terminus of the stair. Its size and shape gave the space a pleasant atmosphere on the cloudless day of my visit. Early renderings show a series of these skylights, but it seems to this author that more would have caused the interior to be overlit and seem more sterile.

Photograph by the author

Equally dramatic is the skylight running the full length of the back-of-house hallway. Clad in dark gray CMU and charcoal stained wood paneling, this space, though less ambitious, is just as successful as its larger cousin. Both these spaces for movement overshadow the small theatre spaces at the building’s heart.

Photograph by the author

One can exit the building onto a small patio framed by offices for performing arts faculty, paved in a linear pattern that appears a vestige of value engineering. On this side, the Wolfe camouflages itself within a hill. This green slope will eventually be used for outdoor performances, but its sod was yet to establish itself at the time of my visit.

Photograph by the author

As successful as the overall building gesture is, a few confusing and inconsistent details almost sink it. A preponderance of small issues has added up to a big problem. The most egregious error involves a pair of sprinklerheads unceremoniously placed in the aforementioned lobby skylight atop plumbing (thankfully) painted to match the adjacent wall. Details like these are often symptomatic of a strained relationship between design and executive architects. Leaving construction administration in the hands of locals, global practices can sometimes lose control of important details to a building’s detriment. It seems likely this has happened to the Wolfe.

Photograph by the author

From a design standpoint, there are a few questionable moves as well. 1) On the building’s flanks, windows don’t occur often enough to become a pattern, and instead seem capitulations to programmatic circumstance. 2) Just inside the building’s prow lies a group of small classrooms that are fully isolated and surrounded by circulation, creating an island or a building-within-a-building. While this does create a observation spots on either side, it results in strange fish-tank-like spaces. 3) The selection of concrete masonry walls for some interior spaces is disappointing. It seems to lower the building to the level of its neighbors, and gives these spaces an unfortunately institutional atmosphere.

Photograph by the author

A central question for me is whether this commission even worthy of Snohetta. Commissioning an internationally recognized office for such a modest building meant it must have been a chore rather than a labor of love, and perhaps its shortcomings are the result of a lack of attention. But when Craig Dykers and co. are simultaneously working on the 9/11 Museum in Manhattan and an addition to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, who can blame them? While the Wolfe Center is far from perfect, here’s hoping more state universities take chances on ambitious architecture in the future. Perhaps the lesson here is for other campuses to work with younger, perhaps local outfits looking to establish themselves rather than an international crew whose reputation may not be tarnished by a failure in a flyover state.


Book Review: The Architectural Detail

The good detail is not the part from which the whole is generated, not the idea of the whole carried into the part, not the consistent application of a set of principles, not the paradigm for the totality of the building […] At its best it is an autonomous activity, and, at times, even subversive. (45-46)

The new book by Edward R. Ford, author of the weighty Details of Modern Architecture, sets out to answer the question, “What is a detail?” His answers are fragmentary at best, but their contradictory conclusions seem to support Ford’s argument better than a succinct, universal answer would, and the book itself seems to be constructed as an analog to said argument. The book is divided into seven chapters, presenting a series of different definitions of the architectural detail, and concluding with a chapter instead defining the activity of detailing. Defining a derivative rather than the root – or the means rather than the end – is a successful gambit for Ford, permitting his speculative conclusion rather than an encyclopedic one.

Ford begins by dismantling a number of widely held opinions about the function and form of details. An early chapter (‘There Are No Details’) battles the opinion that “To many modernists […] details are impossible, unnecessary, or undesirable.”  In response, Ford outlines reasons why the way parts come together matters even when the architect may say it doesn’t. What is at issue in details for Ford is the negotiation of contradictory forces, and the artful exposure or concealment of inconsistencies. His book walks the same fine line as the details he discusses, outlining all sides of a debate that Ford sees as central to modern architecture, but his inordinate revelation of contrasting views muddies and obscures what might otherwise be a convincing position statement. In an effort at comprehensiveness, Ford undercuts the authority of his intriguing conclusion.

His selection of examples is adept at times, but often seems arbitrary, as if Ford had selected only buildings about which he had previously written instead of selecting them to support his argument. The dearth of canonical buildings is peculiar, but perhaps that is part of Ford’s argument. He takes issue with the way popular histories of modern architecture have been constructed, and this text (along with his previous books) serves as a corrective, refocusing attention on the making of buildings and how their construction can underline or complicate architectural ideas. For Ford, the independence of building parts is a pragmatic but also poetic solution to the modernist dilemma of form and function; architecture may be autonomous, but only because its parts do different things than paintings or novels or three piece suits. This definition of architectural autonomy – that its parts act independently based on their disparate purposes – is very different from that espoused by other theorists, whose disciplinary territorialism leads to un-collegial isolation.

Paradoxically, reading this book led me to reflect not on architectural details, but details in other disciplines, in particular fashion and literature. There are many analogs to Ford’s “autonomous” architectural details, one of the most obvious being the penchant in menswear for unexpected textures, patterns or colors in things like socks and pocket squares. In literature, similarly surprising details have instead been called “adventitious,” seemingly based on forces contrary or tangential to a narrative; Ernest Hemingway, for example, used these unexpected specifics to alter and ultimately amplify the power of his clean, straightforward descriptions.

Ford’s argument is similar, that buildings are flat and soulless without exceptions to prove the rule. The richness engendered by an intricate Alvar Aalto handrail or Carlo Scarpa structural connection is undeniable, and Ford does an admirable job outlining the reasons for the appeal of such subversive and unexpected componentry. This book is a worthwhile read for advanced students, practitioners, and anyone interested in philosophies of architectural assembly.

Princeton Architectural Press, 2011


Handicapping the Pritzker Prize, 2011 Edition

 

The Pritzker Prize Laureate for 2011 will be announced in April, and here is my list of favorites. I missed my chance to do this last year, but given that the last two laureates were on my 2009 shortlist (Peter Zumthor [12:1] and Kazuyo Sejima [10:1]) I decided it would be fun to try again this year. I think it will be among these ten architects, unless the jury goes weird, like they did in 2006 with Paolo Mendes da Rocha. You just never know.

 

5:1 – Liz Diller (American, b. Poland, 1954) and Ricardo Scofidio (American, b. 1935) of Diller Scofidio + Renfro

Like 2010 laureates Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, DS+R are nearly ubiquitous at the moment. They have recently been awarded several major commissions, including the Broad Art Museum in Los Angeles, a temporary events bubble for the Hirschhorn Museum (designed by Pritzker Laureate Gordon Bunshaft) on the National Mall in Washington, and a two-building campus for the Business School of Columbia University. Their work on New York’s High Line, in collaboration with Field Operations, is rapidly becoming a landmark, and their surgical reconfigurations of Lincoln Center have been extremely successful and critically acclaimed. I think this might be their year.

 

7:1 – Steven Holl (American, b. 1947)

Just give it to him already… He’s finished several enormous projects in China in the past two years, and they’ve all been well received. Plus, he finally built the Knut Hamsum Center in Norway after fifteen years on the drawing board. No one is more deserving in my book, but maybe there’s something I just don’t know.

 

10:1 – David Chipperfield (British, b. 1953)

Chipperfield has recently completed two major European projects: the Barcelona City of Justice, and several renovations and additions to Museum Island in Berlin (which seems neverending). Every time I turn around he’s building another museum, and in the next couple years he’ll finish one each in Saint Louis, in Norway, and in Zurich to name a few. The jury might swing his way this year.

 

 

15:1 – Toyo Ito (Japanese, b. 1941)

Ito’s work has remained consistently elegant through many decades of change. While recent projects have become less and less conventional both structurally and organizationally, there has been little change in quality; see in particular his Tama Art University Library and the “White O” House in Chile. If his project for UC Berkeley would have gone through as planned (a revised commission was given to DS+R last summer), he’d be a shoo in.

 

15:1 — Wolf Prix (Austrian, b. 1946) of Coop Himmelb(l)au

Coop have a few major projects under construction across Asia and Europe. Look for Wolf’s chances to significantly increase in the years to come.

 

20:1 – Ben Van Berkel (Dutch, b. 1957) of UN Studio

UN Studio seems to have lost a little steam lately. It may be the economy, or that they have a lot on the way. I’m skeptical Van Berkel will be the choice this year, but given the overwhelming success of the Mercedes Benz Museum a couple years back, don’t count him out entirely.

 

20:1Kengo Kuma (Japanese, b. 1954)

He might have a stronger chance if he stopped going around saying he wants to “erase architecture,” but Kuma’s international profile has increased after winning the commission for the Victoria & Albert branch in Dundee, Scotland. His inventive use of materials and adaptability to local contexts are a welcome alternative to most of the globetrotting practices with whom he competes.

 

30:1 – Daniel Libeskind (Polish/American, b. 1946)

Libeskind seems to have become the go-to architect for luxury shopping malls in recent years, and his two most recent institutional commissions (the Denver Art Museum and Royal Ontario Museum addition) were both cooly received by press and public alike. I highly doubt the likelihood of his selection.

 

30:1 – Peter Eisenman (American, b. 1932)

I doubt they’re going to give the award to a 79 year old American iconoclast that hasn’t completed any projects lately. Not many people are enthusiastic about his City of Culture in Spain, and there doesn’t seem to be much else on the drawing board. The jury leans toward architects on the rise, and Peter is on the wane.


Book Review: The Alphabet and the Algorithm

The author is dead. Long live the algorithm.

So says The Alphabet and the Algorithm, Mario Carpo’s addition to the “Writing Architecture” series (edited by Cynthia Davidson of Anyone), recently published by The MIT Press. Carpo is known for crosswise cuts to the history of architecture, and here he aims to reframe our still-nascent transition toward a digital architecture. The new frame is based on what he terms the paradigm of identicality. Carpo posits that the transition to digital production media is one from production of identical copies to mass customization and participation. Digital technology, Carpo argues, can and must change both the subject and object of architectural design; no longer will the designer have total authorial control, and no longer must the object be singular and specific. For Carpo, the choice for architects and designers is between powerlessness and control. They must choose between the production of what he calls “objectiles” (a term he lifts from Gilles Deleuze via Bernard Cache) and objects themselves. Objectiles – algorithmic constructs from which infinite variations originate – are the only future for authorial control.

Early chapters deal with Leon Battista Alberti – inaugurator of the paradigm of identicality – and his many representational innovations. Alberti, Carpo argues, was constantly struggling for control of his products, something nearly impossible in an age of artisanal production. He gradually evolved a system of orthogonal projection – plan, section, elevation – to enable a one-to-one relationship between design and product: identicality. We still operate under this set of assumptions today, but their days are numbered.

After Alberti, Carpo rapidly shifts toward the present, lingering in particular on that transformative digital decade, the Nineties. Carpo effectively synthesizes an unruly net of conceptual threads (Deleuze and the fold, Calculus, the Baroque, the Blob) into an engaging but misleadingly linear narrative of the recent past. His analysis raises many questions (not the least of which are the veracity of his prognostications) but provides a beginners guide to the onset of digital representation and production. As an attempt at writing history in progress, this book succeeds because of its clarity.

Students should be aware of the changes afoot in the field they are entering, and therefore this book would make appropriate reading material for BIM and information technology courses. It is vitally important that those learning current platforms understand where they have come from and where they are going.

Carpo argues convincingly that designers need to engage in the production of tools. The alternative, says Carpo, is confinement to a prison house of software, forever limited by the capacities of our mechanisms. Perhaps that’s not so different from the past …

The MIT Press (Writing Architecture Series), 2011


Book Review: Utopia’s Ghost: Architecture and Postmodernism, Again

In Reinhold Martin’s second book on postwar architecture, he vividly reconsiders what is called postmodernism from many angles and on many levels. The eponymous “ghost” of utopia, Martin argues, continues to haunt the fractured, juxtaposed narratives of postmodern architecture, despite the architects’ best intentions.

Martin is at his best when making use of architecture as a ground, and unfortunately the first half of his book contains precious few buildings. That changes with a chapter on materiality. Dealing mostly with mirrored glass in the work of Philip Johnson, Martin argues that we mustn’t look into the mirrors, but at them, within which he finds only capital. These mirrors construct a feedback loop, reflecting and refracting themselves in a mise-en-abyme that Martin diagnoses as one of the central ciphers of postmodernism.

Martin continues to build steam until the book concludes with a chapter almost overflowing with buildings and projects (unsurprisingly titled “Architecture”), by and through which Martin riffs on his themes of global capital, feedback, and the specter of utopian thinking. The projects in this final chapter are some of the canonical works of postmodernism (Stirling’s Neue Staatsgalerie, Rossi’s San Cataldo Cemetery, Ungers’ Architecture Museum) and Martin’s climactic use of them is a dramatic and erudite jouissance.

Like all great theory, Martin’s book will cause considerable reconfiguration of one’s preconceptions. In my case, this book transformed my understanding of the ways modernism (the construction of grand, utopian narratives) lived on in that which symbolized its death. Perhaps more importantly, this book lays bare architecture’s (in)escapable complicity in global capital. The only escape, Martin argues, is to dive ever deeper.

University of Minnesota Press, 2010