Free WordPress Themes


Pritzker Prize winners discuss the future of architecture

June 2016

At a recent roundtable discussion at the United Nations headquarters in New York, seven Pritzker Prize-winning architects discussed sustainable development today and tomorrow.



In early April the day after the Pritzker Prize was awarded to Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, he joined six former winners in a roundtable discussion of how architecture can be sustainable today and in the future. Zaha Hadid, in 2004 the first woman to win the Pritzker, was to have been there too. Her sudden death in late March was a shock felt around the world of architecture.

The group included Christian de Portzamparc (1994); Renzo Piano (1998); Glenn Murcutt (2002); Richard Rogers (2007); Jean Nouvel (2008); and Wang Shu (2012). With Aravena, they sat on the stage in the Trusteeship Council auditorium at the United Nations headquarters in New York. The roundtable was sponsored by the Pritzker Prize organisation and the Sustainable Development Goals Fund, created two years ago by the Government of Spain and the UN Development Programme to help unite federal, state, and private partners working on development projects.

Moderator Cathleen McGuigan set the tone of the evening with her first question: What are the challenges to the built environment today? The architects answered the question in terms of their profession as well more generally.

Architecture brings people together

Richard Rogers set the tone by saying that architecture is “part of the humanist tradition” and is “about changing the environment, humanising it.” Unfortunately, Rogers added, “the role of the architect is being eroded.” The architect is too often seen as a decorator whereas he says, “the built environment is as important as health and education” to the well-being of society.

Glenn Murcutt referred to the fear of immigration in some parts of the world and attributed it to “social and religious prejudice.” One answer, said Murcutt, is architecture that brings people together like his current project in Melbourne, Australia, a mosque big enough for 1,000 people, intended “to bring Islam back to the community.” The mosque fits into its environment; it doesn’t have a dome or a minaret; it brings light inside, and Murcutt calls it his “greatest joy” in 47 years as an architect.

For Christian de Portzamparc the split between urban centres and the peripheral communities outside is a major social problem that architecture can alleviate. “How physical space is experienced,” he explained, “is not only a political issue.” The separation of rich and poor is “not inevitable” because “a city should be a continuous system” without enclaves or ghettos. Architects should “refuse to build where there is no link” between sections and say, “No new enclaves.”

In China, said Wang Shu, “90 percent of old buildings have been demolished in the past 50 years.” So people “lost their lives.” He mentioned several villages that were levelled, and on the same terrain, a museum was erected. “They collected old things and recycled them in the museum,” Shu recalled. But architecture should bring evolution as opposed to revolution. He warned against excess in seeking a clean environment. If everything in New York were clean, insisted Shu, it would no longer be New York.

Renzo Piano emphasised the importance of architecture as “public art,” the frontier between art and society. That is important because cities are important, and “trying to save cities, making them better places to live” is one of the architect’s chief missions. Piano pointed out that the words ‘city’ and ‘civilization’ are related. This is more obvious in his native Italian where citta (city) and civitas (group of citizens or even civilization) have a clearer relationship. “We are in bad need of beauty in the world,” he said, not “cosmetic beauty but deep beauty” that influences the lives of residents.

It is time to “inscribe new values and poetry in the city,” said Jean Nouvel. However, if this is the task for architects, it is a difficult one. Nouvel believes that 30-40 years ago, “the power of the architect was stronger.” Today decisions are taken by politicians, bureaucrats, and “global zoning is the same,” in restricting the architect who is “sponsored by developers and contractors.” He said architects “have the responsibility to denounce this situation” and added, “I propose once more to fight.”

Promoting self-help to build housing

Alejandro Aravena, the 2016 Pritzker Prize winner, was the last to speak during the opening round. He reverted to the theme of his acceptance speech the night before: it is time to focus on cities because migration from the country to the city is continuing especially in underdeveloped and developing countries. By 2030, estimated Aravena, more than five billion people will have migrated into cities. “The speed and scale of this process is unprecedented in our history,” he said.

The task will be to build homes for one million people each week for the next 15 years. This is impossible as things are done today. However, Aravena’s vision is to follow “a strategy for scarcity” that relies on people to contribute their own skills to create housing for themselves and their families.

With his firm Elemental Aravena has designed a system of building apartment homes with spaces between each unit. As a family grows, it will add walls and finishes to occupy the empty space and enlarge the home. To allow builders around the world to follow this pattern for housing development, Aravena announced that the plans may be downloaded for free from the Elemental website.

Communication is key

In order for architects to regain their position, Nouvel said, “We must be connected to people; we must talk to them and show the importance of the principles behind our designs.” Shu agreed, saying, “as architects, we are professionals. We change so many people’s lives.” The answer is simple for Piano. “Hold the pencil in your hand,” he said. That’s where the architect’s power begins.

De Portzamparc emphasised communication with the mayor or other municipal leaders as well as local citizens. “We have to invent a system that incorporates architecture,” he explained, “even if we might not like it so much.” But the key is “to have a direct link with the mayor and citizens,” not to let the builder make the decisions.

Architects and sustainability

The starting point for Aravena “should be far from architecture.” It is a problem to be solved for which architecture provides “the power of synthesis.” Aravena said he is attending the world congress on sustainability in Quito, Ecuador, in the fall of this year, saying, “Cities may be tools for sustainable development. Instead of sustainability, Murcutt prefers the term “responsible architecture” by which he means architecture that “responds to climate, landscape, people, and the economics of the place.”

Fields of study for architects

 Nouvel and Shu both said that architecture is the key field. Novel doesn’t like urban planning; he suggests urban design is “architecture on a large scale.” Shu agrees with Murcutt that there is no single definition of architecture – it depends on local traditions.

The humanities are always key for Piano who considers, “this profession is a civic art.” First you have to be a “civic builder,” then a “civic poet.” In “learning how to be a good builder… eventually you are a poet.” As a poet, he dislikes computer simulation because it is easy “to fall in love” with design on a machine which you should not trust. Murcutt’s approach is similar. “One of the great teachers is nature,” he concluded. For him biology and nature are the underpinnings of architecture.

To stay on top of the latest real estate news, subscribe to Cityscape Magazine.