CAN ARCHITECTURE MAKE A CITY VIABLE?
A Roundtable Discussion by four Pritzker Prize Winning Architects
They had gathered the night before at Frank Gehry’s New World Centre to celebrate the winner of the 2015 Pritzker Prize for Architecture at a glittering function to honour a man who was no longer alive. Frei Otto had learned about the honour generally considered the equivalent of a Nobel Prize in January, but in March he was gone at the age of 89. However, his work was honoured last May in Miami at the Pritzker Prize ceremony that takes place in a different architecturally significant city each year.
The next morning Zaha Hadid (winner in 2004), Thom Mayne (2005), Glenn Murcott (2002), and Richard Rogers (2007) met at the shining white De la Cruz Contemporary Art Space, opened in 2009 by Rosa and Carlos de la Cruz to house their extensive collection of contemporary art. “We’ve never had more architects in this building,” said Carlos de la Cruz in welcoming the audience and introducing John Marquette, the building’s architect.
More than 300 people attended, many of them young people studying architecture at local universities. The discussion was moderated by Paul Goldberger, himself architect, author, and former reviewer of architecture for the New York Times. Some of the comments have been condensed, but context and implication remain.
Goldberger: How much does architecture matter in making a good city?
Rogers: I think everyone believes cities can humanise or brutalise us… The really serious problem is that architecture is slowly shrinking into a decorative art rather than expanding into the question of the quality of life and the public domain.”
Murcott: In China a few years ago when I visited with members of the Pritzker team, we saw what I call the urban suburban because you took a block of land and put a building on it, and every building was an iconic building. Of course, if you get a city of iconic buildings, no matter how good the architecture is, then the pedestrian at ground level does not experience the urban nature of a city – such as in Paris where you also have high density and a beautiful city to walk in streets and the interaction between the public and markets and all sorts of restaurants. The ground level has tended to be forgotten and the architecture has become the subject of that icon… The building has to be less obvious and the spaces more obvious.
Mayne: A building doesn’t make a city, but it contributes hugely to the culture of a city.
Hadid: I think this political correctness. Oh, let’s do ugly buildings because they’re more serious is wrong…. I think that you can do great urbanism with great special experiences, and you can still do great buildings…Bilbao is a great example. It encouraged the politicians to invest in other pieces of architecture and urbanism.
When Christo wrapped the Reichstag in Berlin [in 1995], it triggered the effect of doing good work. It focused on a public building. I went to Bilbao when the Guggenheim [designed by Gehry] wasn’t yet open, and honestly there wasn’t much. I went to Bilbao many times after, and every time I went, there was another intervention… It started with one building and went into infrastructure and very large master plans.
So far, the urban intervention in cities has been in pockets or islands, and it doesn’t cover the whole city. That’s another problem because the islands become icons.
Rogers: The façade of a building serves the people. In Barcelona where I advised the mayor before and after the  Olympics and in Bilbao, you had mayors of amazing quality that set up the framework… Don’t separate the building from the environment… That’s a critical problem of society today – they see it as two separate parts.
Murcott: Universities are not taking on [architecture] practitioners. They have largely in-house academics… and the computer has started to destroy thinking, and it is a real issue… And the kids are taking on facadism… and the function of the whole building and how it expresses itself to the environment is not taken into account.
Hadid: I think what is exciting about this moment is that in the past few years there have been many exciting discoveries in architecture. A lot of it has been very liberating for us and to the student body…. I have been teaching for 30 years…. Computation skills have allowed students to do incredible stuff…. Even though I still love hand drawing.
Rogers: My first job was to scratch out huge sheets with a razor blade…. Obviously, the printing press put some monks out of jobs…so let’s go live in caves.
Mayne: If you’re an architect in your 20s, the most compelling problems of the future are going to be infrastructure and urbanism.
Hadid: I think it’s been positive, the interest by the public in architecture…Twenty years ago no one knew about architecture.
Goldberger: Can a building make a city?
Mayne: In Paris the Eiffel Tower, the Pompidou Centre, and the Louis Vuitton Museum were criticised in their time in similar terms.
Rogers: The Eiffel Tower in Paris came from the industrial revolution.
Hadid: Pompidou [designed by Rogers] was a magnet because of its strangeness… Newness propelled people to it.
Rogers: I don’t know a place in history where you had too many good buildings… Icons do advance society. When we built Pompidou, it’s not closed. It’s an education to go through it as well as to go in it… You shouldn’t divide the horizontal plane and the vertical plane. It’s all about people.
Murcott: Sydney is defined by its topography. In Melbourne buildings make the city. Climate and topography makes huge differences… If we took off the landscape from Miami, just to be talking about architecture, it wouldn’t make sense. It’s an absolutely critical part of this city.
Rogers: Probably the most important thing we’re facing which we never faced before is sustainability and climate change… I encourage the concept of the compact city. It brings all sorts of advantages – we are next door to each other, we don’t need cars, we have public transportation… In some ways you’ve gone back to a different kind of city. The sprawling city is the enemy. It uses three times as much energy…. I think we are in a very exciting time if we grab what the problems are…but how do we get the public domain to see it?
Audience question: Architecture has been getting worse since the 1970s – what can be done?
Rogers: Actually, things have gotten better since the 70s. New York is better to live in at this moment than it was in the 70s.… It’s about designing really good shelter, open space, and public space.
Murcott: It took Australia until the 1970s when we became affluent to accept immigrants as new Australians, and that brought many interesting influences from Europe and elsewhere.
Audience question: What if local authorities propose to replace one of your buildings?
Laughter among the laureates
Hadid: I think in time they can.
Murcott: I don’t mind. One building has already been pulled down. As long as it’s replaced with a better one.
Then the architects and VIPs went on to brunch at another elegant location while the architecture students walked away with a great deal to think about how they might approach their future profession.