Hasn’t architecture always been political?

The committee that selected the most recent Pritzker Prize winners makes note of the political statement made by the architects:

Historically, the Pritzker Prize, founded in 1979 and sponsored by the Hyatt Foundation, veers away from tough issues and towards celebrity. Often referred to as the Nobel Prize for architecture, the award honors a body of work over any singular building. That means it typically goes to high-profile designers, like Shigeru Ban, Jean Nouvel, and Zaha Hadid. Last year’s award was almost an exception. Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, known for clever work on low-income housing, won. But fame preceded the award: he had already done the TED talk circuit and hosted the Venice Biennale.

It’s not the job of the Pritzker Prize jury to make identity politics out of the award. But right now, it’s hard not to. Here’s part of the jury’s citation, explaining the choice to award RCR Arquitectes:

“In this day and age, there is an important question that people all over the world are asking, and it is not just about architecture; it is about law, politics, and government as well. We live in a globalized world where we must rely on international influences, trade, discussion, transactions, etc. But more and more people fear that, because of this international influence, we will lose our local values, our local art, and our local customs. They are concerned and sometimes frightened. Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigem and Ramon Vilalta tell us that it may be possible to have both. They help us to see, in a most beautiful and poetic way, that the answer to the question is not ‘either/or’ and that we can, at least in architecture, aspire to have both; our roots firmly in place and our arms outstretched to the rest of the world. And that is such a wonderfully reassuring answer, particularly if it applies in other areas of modern human life as well.”

With this, the jury has landed on a remarkably safe political statement, one that straddles the schism between protectionist and inclusive ideologies. Consider RCR Arquitectes’ choice to run its shop in a town of 30,000 people, instead of the nearby metropolis Barcelona. It’s quaint in that way—practically mom-and-pop. Yet, the firm’s three architects work collaboratively, building open structures that anyone can enjoy, the jury says. It’s a much lighter declaration than choosing, say, a woman like Jeanne Gang or an Iranian practice like Admun Studio.

Maybe it is noteworthy that this particular prize made a note of politics but architecture has arguably always been political. Those colossal buildings of ancient times, the Great Pyramids or the Colosseum, were intended to project power. (Some authoritarian leaders of recent centuries have pursued similar projects. See the altering of Paris in the 1800s as just one example.) Or, Jeanne Halgren Kilde explains how religious buildings demonstrate and reflect power. Even the imitation of more traditional architecture in McMansions is intended to project something about the owners.

This does not mean that the average resident recognizes all of this. Indeed, some architecture might be intended to avoid connection to politics. But, we shouldn’t be surprised that the construction of edifices – critical to social life – both reflect and enact political dynamics.

(To read more of how this might play out with religious, read my co-authored piece titled “When Bricks Matter.”

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