words Justin McGuirk
With all the trappings of a royal function, is the award getting too respectable for its own good?
Along the red carpet we go, in our penguin suits and dickie-bows, past the line of horse guards in sparkling breastplates holding swords up to their noses, into the Banqueting House at Whitehall Palace. This is fairytale England, as imagined by Americans watching the Trooping the Colour on the telly. An England fulfilling the fantasies of an enlightened family of hoteliers from Chicago, who give their name and money to “the Nobel” of architecture. This is the Pritzker Prize dinner, where nouveau riche ambition, the British establishment and architecture’s elite collide.
If the Pritzker is an architect’s ticket into the hall of fame, then it needs pomp, and nobody does pomp quite like the British. This evening is as much about affirming the status of the prize as it is about the apotheosis of this year’s winner, Richard Rogers. Here, in a building designed by Inigo Jones, under a ceiling groaning with Rubens nudes, the great, the good and the old (along with a couple of journalists) are dining on rack of lamb at tables set with hillocks of peonies.
But first the ceremonies: the Pritzker’s venerable judges are asked to stand up, then the former laureates, then a long succession of speeches takes place, including one, I’m pleased to hear, by Columbo – although I search the stage in vain for a man in a rumpled mac holding a cigar to his forehead. (“Lord Palumbo,” my neighbour corrects me.) There is even a toast to the Queen, at which point the room rises to its feet and Zaha Hadid looks up from her BlackBerry – but it must be the other queen they’re talking about.
The sense of occasion is awesome, but it’s all so self-affirming. We may be in the heart of the establishment but let’s not forget that this is where we lopped off the head of Charles I. Somehow we need some subversion – we need a Cromwell. The problem with the Pritzker’s brand of king-making is that it has no agenda and takes no risks. With very few exceptions – last year’s winner was the Brazilian Paolo Mendes da Rocha – you have to be one of the world’s most famous architects to win it. It’s essentially a lifetime achievement award for people who don’t need the money or recognition.
Richard Rogers might just as easily have picked this gong up a decade ago – his former partners, Norman Foster and Renzo Piano, have both had theirs. But the timing means that he can be honoured for his more recent work on cities as much as for his buildings – Ken Livingstone gave an impassioned and entirely off-the-cuff speech about how much Rogers has influenced his mayorship. It was impressive stuff, and even my shipping magnate neighbours, seething with disapproval of Ken, had to concede as much.
Rogers deserves this prize even more than most former laureates. But the question is, next year will it just be awarded to the most famous architect not to have one (Toyo Ito, say, or Daniel Libeskind)?