Opinion: It’s Time to Reconsider the Architecture Prize

The #MeToo movement and allegations against Richard Meier should push us to rethink how we evaluate architectural merit.

Pritzker Architecture Prize Opinion
Courtesy the Pritzker Architecture Prize

In April, following the New York Times’s reports that Pritzker laureate Richard Meier had been accused by former employees of incidents, spanning many years, of sexual harassment and assault, Metropolis emailed the Pritzker Architecture Prize asking if it would reconsider the decision to let Meier’s honor stand. In answer, Metropolis received a statement from the prize’s spokesperson. It read:

“Richard Meier was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1984, based on his architectural merit at that time. We do not comment on the personal lives of our Laureates, but do consider all sexual allegations to be serious, as abusive behavior towards any individual is unacceptable.”

The statement is a deeply troubling misrepresentation of a professional matter as one of out-of-sight-out-of-mind “personal life.” Some of the incidents, after all, are alleged to have occurred in RMPA’s offices or under the guise of work responsibilities, and cannot be divorced from Meier’s professional conduct. We must therefore consider the allegations to concern Meier’s “architectural merit,” understood not only to include buildings and ideas for which Meier is well known, but also the processes, relationships, and work environments that Meier, as head of RMPA, created, oversaw, and sanctioned.

Whether Meier’s Pritzker is to be revoked is one matter. (The New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects rescinded Meier’s 2018 Design Award in March.)  But the bigger and more urgent question is whether this moment can allow us to reconsider how architecture prizes are awarded.

What constitutes “architectural merit”? For years, architects, journalists, academics, and critics have evaluated this vague criterion on the basis of finished work—buildings, master plans, speculative schemes, manifestos. The Pritzker honors “a living architect or architects whose built work demonstrates a combination of those qualities of talent, vision, and commitment, which has produced consistent and significant contributions to humanity and the built environment through the art of architecture.”

But architecture is not an art, nor is it produced through mere talent, vision, and commitment of one individual (despite predominating narratives of Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Kahn, Le Corbusier, Bjarke Ingels, and so on). Architecture is also not only a single building; it is the design and representation of buildings, no matter how formally beautiful, technologically innovative, environmentally conscious, or socially responsible. Put simply, architecture is nothing if not a practice, and it must be evaluated as such.

Carrying out this practice are architects, professionals who collaborate with various parties to generate drawings, models, and other forms of representation, get them approved, and then turn those schemes into structures that can be safely occupied and inhabited. Everything that architects do, everything they are trained to do, and everything for which they are legally liable concerns the professional process of design, not only its outcome.

Architecture’s prizes should celebrate “talent, vision, and commitment,” along with “contributions to humanity and the built environment.” But those qualities should be measured by conditions that make those contributions possible: a positive and empowering workplace culture; professional competency; innovation and excellence throughout the design, bidding, and construction processes; and yes, finished buildings.

In other words, they should honor the full professional practice of architecture, which is how architecture gets made.

It’s time to phase out the individual architect’s prize (like the Pritzker or AIA Gold Medal in their current forms) in favor of ones that honor practices and projects (like the RIBA Stirling Prize or AIA Architecture Firm Award, for example). In doing so, we might learn of behind-the-scenes, team-based, and process-related innovations that would benefit the profession as a whole, and inform projects to come. These are the kinds of practices that, swapped amongst architects over happy hour, already garner praise and respect within the professional community. But they are poorly understood and appreciated as architectural work by the general design-loving public.

Such a shift should not diminish the shine of the many deserving architects who have already received the Pritzker Prize (and its $100,000 award)—yesterday bestowed to Balkrishna Doshi. If anything, it would buoy the reputation of future laureates by honoring the full responsibilities of their jobs. It would avoid celebrating architects who run toxic workplaces and are unsupportive of minorities and women (all at the expense of the architecture as a profession). In fact, it would shine more of a spotlight on the contributions of members of the team who might not otherwise be recognized, paving the way for their advancement, and help erode the grossly unbalanced power dynamic in some firms headed by a (typically white male) starchitect. The Pritzker, after all, was founded to help incentivize “greater creativity within the architectural profession.”

The profession is chock full of creativity; it’s time to incentivize professionalism.

The Pritzker organization made it clear when it rejected Denise Scott Brown from Robert Venturi’s honor that it does not reopen its cases. From then-jury chair Peter Palumbo’s statement in 2013: “Pritzker juries, over time, are made up of different individuals, each of whom does his or her best to find the most highly qualified candidate. A later jury cannot re-open, or second guess the work of an earlier jury, and none has ever done so.” And it is hard to imagine whether the Pritzker would ever do away with its annual lifetime achievement award in favor of something that more closely acknowledges what “architectural merit” truly entails.

But if this is true, let’s hope that we loosen our own admiration of the Pritzker, which despite a somewhat stodgy reputation continues to hold authority for both architects and the general public. We must look to other prizes, through wider lenses, in order to truly evaluate outstanding achievements in this diverse field. It’s the only way to move forward.

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