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It’s Time To Shut The Pritzker Down

Of the 42 Pritzker Laureates to have been named to date, just one of them has been an individual woman.

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We at Architizer have had our share of problems with the Pritzker, which is partly why we created our own awards program. Our goal is to bring architecture out of the echo chamber, and the Pritzker — as its handling of the Denise Scott Brown debacle clearly demonstrates — helps keep it in the hands of an elite, rarefied few.

Six years on from the Scott Brown controversy, the Pritzker Foundation has handed another award to a well-known male architect. It means that, of the 42 Pritzker Laureates to have been named to date, just one of them has been an individual woman.

In light of this news, we have decided to republish Kazys Varnelis’ op-ed entitled “It’s time to shut the Pritzker down.” The director of the Network Architecture Lab at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation railed against what must be the least democratic, most politicized prize in architecture. This article originally appeared on his blog in 2013, and is republished here with permission from the author:

Scott Brown in Las Vegas, 1966. Photo: Robert Venturi via Architects Newspaper

“The Pritzker jury has decided to do away with any good that the prize has ever done. Refusing to retroactively acknowledge Denise Scott Brown’s contribution in the work of the firm that she shares with Robert Venturi, the jury voted instead to affirm its patriarchal authority.

Curiously, the Pritzker has previously been awarded to Ryue Nishizawa alongside Kazuyo Sejima, of SANAA. Not to denigrate Nishizawa’s contribution, but I have heard SANAA referred to as “Sejima” as often, if not more, than I have heard VSBA referred to as “Venturi.” Why the double standard?

The sort of patronizing language used in the letter by Lord Palumbo is all too familiar. It is the voice of money and authority, the same sort of voice that spoke out against the rights of the women, the poor, and minorities. It is, alas, the voice of what Brown describes as the “sad old men’s award.”

Dartmouth College, Rauner Special Collections Library, designed by Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates. Courtesy of VSBA

I see no way in which we can, in good conscience, think of the Pritzker as being anything but a detriment to the profession. Indeed, the entire notion of the Pritzker Prize is testament to the misguided fallacy of architecture as the work of solitary geniuses, usually ignoring that it is almost inevitably a team product. Now, we may give awards to individuals at school (although at Columbia we have also split those awards among partners), that is a special case in which students work, in most cases, individually. Practice, particularly at the large scale that the Pritzker typically lauds, is another.

After three decades of affirming much that is wrong about our profession, the Pritzker has run its course. If, collectively, we decide that it is invalid and pay it no heed, it will die. And die it must. There should be no second chances for an institution as bankrupt as this one.

$100,000 a year is a lot of prize money. It’s time to shut the Pritzker down and give that to people who need it, not to a bunch of already famous, well-off old men. Why not take the list of countries ranked worldwide by GDP and distribute the money to needy students in countries in the bottom half? Jay Pritzker’s money would be doing much more for the profession. At least it wouldn’t be perpetuating misogyny.

Kazys Varnelis is the director of the Network Architecture Lab at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation. With Robert Sumrell, he runs the non-profit architectural collective AUDC.

Make your voice heard! What do you think about the Pritzker? Have opinions you want to share on Architizer? Submit your own op-ed to editorial@architizer.com.