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Pritzker Grade Inflation

As Toyo Ito picks up the Pritzker Prize, William JR Curtis finds the ratcheting up of the award’s rhetoric unmatched by the quality of its winners

The Pritzker Prize has been up and down from the beginning. It nearly committed suicide at the very start when its jury selected Philip Johnson as the first laureate, although things were quickly set on course when Luis Barragán was chosen, albeit for the wrong reasons. Since then, despite uneven choices, the prize has somehow managed to put itself across as a benchmark of indisputable architectural quality. Every year the press repeats the mantra that this is the ‘Nobel Prize’ for architecture. Here caution is required: not all Nobel Prizes in science and literature are beyond dispute and the Nobel Peace Prize is sometimes given to those who wage illegal wars.

This year the Pritzker jury selected the Japanese architect Toyo Ito, quite rightly identifying his conceptual ingenuity, his spatial imagination and his technical skill. A building like the Sendai Mediatheque (2001) − which withstood the recent earthquake in northern Japan − would seem to illustrate these qualities in its transparency, lightness and open frame structure of cantilevered slabs supported on wavy bundles of steel tubes. The building’s generating ideas reveal Ito’s interest in analogies between modern technology and natural forms (whether of trees or of waterweeds floating in an aquarium) as well as his aim of liberating interior nodes, focal points and social spaces.

The normally modest Ito likes to claim that some of his more recent, risky and frankly arbitrary designs (some of them looking like Minoru Yamasaki on a bad day) have ‘liberated architecture from 100 years of Modernism’, but part of the vitality of the building in Sendai resides precisely in the tension between the aspiration to new forms for a post-industrial, information society, and the inheritance of type solutions from earlier modern architecture such as Le Corbusier’s Dom-Ino skeleton and Louis Kahn’s investigations of tubes of structure as voids containing light. The Sendai Mediatheque then seems to be a paradigmatic building which captures the contrasts of a period. But still I have not visited it and still wonder how well resolved really are the joints between the angled steel tubes and the slabs they carry. Do the details of the building really succeed in expressing the central ideas?

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Pritzker Prize winner Toyo Ito

But Pritzker citations have no place for such architectural niceties, preferring swirling gases of high sounding rhetoric, and on this occasion they have unleashed quite a packet: ‘Toyo Ito is a creator of timeless buildings, who at the same time boldly charts new paths. His architecture projects an air of optimism, lightness and joy, and is infused with a sense of uniqueness and universality. For these reasons and for his synthesis of structure, space and form that creates inviting places, for his sensitivity to landscape, for infusing his designs with a spiritual dimension and for the poetics that transcend all his works, Toyo Ito is awarded the 2013 Pritzker Architecture Prize.’

Maybe a reality check is in order? Maybe Toyo sometimes leaves the spiritual dimension and poetics at home when he builds abroad, or perhaps they get lost in translation in his luggage? Only recently I was in Barcelona confronted by two architectural skyscraper horrors and a skin deep facade pastiche of Gaudí, all signed Toyo Ito. The former structures known as the Porta Fira towers rise alongside a no man’s land charitably called Plaza Europa, one of them resembling a crimson sex toy gone viral, the other a sub-Miesian glass slab attacked by a throat cancer.

The latter intervention is a wavy metallic facade attached as a marketing device to some fancy real estate operation on Paseo de Gracia and is an affront to the Casa Milà nearly opposite. To invoke Gaudí in these instances (as Ito has done), or to speak (as the Pritzker has done) of ‘timelessness’, is frankly absurd.

Has Ito ever matched the level of the majestic Olympic Stadium in Tokyo (1962) by Kenzo Tange (Pritzker 1987) or that of the Koshino House (1981) by Tadao Ando (Pritzker 1995)? I hardly think so. But then have Tange and Ando themselves ever reached this level again either? One of the risks of the whole Pritzker operation is that it issues a sort of blank cheque, a ‘lifetime achievement award’ or personalised Oscar, a passport into the land of elite stardom, without discriminating between the good, the bad and the indifferent in the production of each and every architect. By doing this, paradoxically, the Pritzker Prize runs counter to the need for a critical assessment of quality in architecture.

Maybe the sweeping rhetoric and overall grade inflation should be countered by citing the best and the worst work of each recipient? Rafael Moneo would get A minus for his ever alluring Museum of Roman Art in Mérida and D minus for his hulk of an airport in Seville. Renzo Piano would get B plus for the Beyeler Museum near Basel and might be asked to return the medal for having wrecked the masterpiece of Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp. James Stirling might get A minus for Leicester Engineering and D for his half-baked Sackler Museum at Harvard. Richard Meier might get B for the rather natty and elegant museum in Frankfurt and an E for his overblown sprawl of the Getty.

No ‘A’s you notice except perhaps for Barragán’s own House at Tacubaya (1947). What a pity that Kahn was not around to get a Pritzker, but that would have brought everyone else down a notch or two. Meanwhile the champagne has to flow and the bubbles of excessive superlatives must continue to cascade over the edges of the glasses.

See also our interview with Toyo Ito following his success

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