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Pretty as a Pritzker: Architecture's art saluted in limited Carnegie exhibit

Thursday, November 04, 1999

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Architecture Critic

Since 1979, the Pritzker Architecture Prize has recognized 22 architects for their contributions to the art of architecture, from Philip Johnson in 1979 to Norman Foster in 1999.

Related events

Events related to the Heinz Architectural Center exhibit, "The Pritzker Architecture Prize: The First Twenty Years."

"To the German People: The Wrapped Reichstag," documentary film about Christo and Jeanne-Claude's "wrapping" of the Berlin Reichstag in June 1995, while Norman Foster was preparing designs for conversion of the Reichstag into the Bundestag, one of unified Germany's two legislative chambers. The building represents Foster in the Pritzker exhibition. Jan. 7 at 7 p.m. and Jan. 9 at 5 p.m. in the Carnegie Museum of Art Theater. $5 adult admission.

"The Pritzker Prize: An Insider's View," lecture by J. Carter Brown, director emeritus, National Gallery of Art; chairman of the Pritzker Architecture Prize. Jan. 14 at 7 p.m. in the Carnegie Lecture Hall.

"Public Buildings," lecture by architect Rafael Vinoly, who will discuss the Pittsburgh Convention Center in the context of his international projects and what attracted him to the Pittsburgh project. Jan. 24 at 6 p.m. in the Carnegie Lecture Hall.

"Ruminations on the Current Architectural State," lecture by writer and critic Joseph Giovannini. Feb. 15 at 6 p.m. in the Carnegie Museum of Art Theater.


Partly due to longevity, the Pritzker is the most prestigious, if not the best paying, of the international architecture awards; its $100,000 prize since has been eclipsed by Japan's Praemium Imperiale award (about $105,000) and the triennial Carlsberg Architectural Prize ($225,000). But the Pritzker, accompanied by a glittery award dinner and a magazine-like publication devoted to the winner, retains enough cachet to be regarded as the Nobel Prize of architecture. Established in 1979 by Jay and Cindy Pritzker and funded by their family business, the Hyatt Corp., the prize confers on an architect instant star status and elevates him (him indeed, there isn't a Ms. in the mix) to a select pantheon.

The hemi-demi-semi-gods are on view Saturday through Feb. 27 at the Carnegie Museum of Art's Heinz Architectural Center, which has mounted "The Pritzker Architecture Prize: The First Twenty Years," produced by the Art Insititute of Chicago. Twenty is a nice round landmark number, a good excuse to take a breath and a look back. Showcasing one work by each of the winners, the exhibit is a tightly focused, inevitably superficial peek at what has garnered acclaim and fame. Because so much is left out, it is less a survey of where architecture has been the past two decades than a measure of what a select group of people believed worth lauding at a certain time.

The Pritzker's purpose is to "honor a living architect whose built work demonstrates a combination of those qualities of talent, vision and commitment, which produced consistent and significant contributions to humanity and the built environment through the art of architecture."

A mouthful, but the key phrase is the last one, the art of architecture. The Pritzker recognizes buildings for their sculptural qualities, but surely they are judged on more than that.

What is the jury looking for?

"Work that is original without being clever, that adheres to age-old principles of architecture but is not predictable; buildings whose concept is readily revealed and whose details add to that premise in a hierarchical way," writes Bill N. Lacy, the prize's executive director, in the exhibit catalog. Which explains why no hard-core deconstructivists have been honored; Frank Gehry (Pritzker '89) is as close as it gets. And not even a nod to context, which explains the emphasis on diva buildings.

"We have not moved appreciably from honoring architects whose body of work consists primarily of individual bravura buildings and commercial structures to lauding those engaged in public-housing projects, for example," Lacy writes, citing some of the prize's shortcomings.

Another is myopia: All of the winners have come from the United States, western Europe and Japan.

Who picks the Pritzkers?

J. Carter Brown has been jury chairman from the beginning; Ada Louise Huxtable has been a member since 1987. Short-term help has come from past winners (Johnson, Gehry and Kevin Roche) and other architects (Cesar Pelli and Arata Isozaki).

To their credit, jurors visit buildings rather than simply look at photographs, which can omit much. In one whirlwind tour covering 11 countries and seven cities in nine days, jurors visited buildings by 24 architects in Italy, Switzerland, America, Finland, Spain and the Netherlands.

Anyone can nominate an architect for the prize. Architects even can nominate themselves, as Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill did in a phone call to Lacy. He won in 1988, sharing the prize with Oscar Niemeyer, architect of Brazilia -- two modernist elders finally getting their due.

Modernism, sometimes informed by historical, even ancient, references, is the river that runs through this exhibit, from the simple and sublime (Tadao Ando's Church of the Light, with its cross of light cut into the altar wall) to the intricate and complex (Gehry's flowering Guggenheim in Bilbao).

Illustrated with conceptual sketches from the hand of the architect, precise computer drawings, photographs and models, the exhibit is accompanied by a catalog with essays that provide the historical context, including a sometimes biting, sometimes blunted critique of the Pritzker by historian and critic William J.R. Curtis.

"The emphasis upon 'art' made the prize peculiarly vulnerable to some of the passing fads of the 1980s, a period that suffered from an excess of form for form's sake," Curtis writes, without naming names.

If the Pritzker has contributed to the brandification of architecture, it also has raised the public's awareness of the built environment.

What's needed now is a high-profile, big-money prize for urban design, the quiet, unsung art of making cities.

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