Why do they award the Pritzker Prize to just one person?

What we build.
April 1 2008 11:42 AM

Architecture Is a Team Sport

So why do they award the Pritzker Prize to just one person?

The Pritzker Prize, which this year was awarded to French architect Jean Nouvel, is often referred to as the Nobel Prize of architecture. It is an inaccurate analogy. Nobel Prizes, whether in literature, chemistry, or physics, are given to individuals for individual work; buildings are the result of teamwork. Sometimes Nobels are awarded to small teams of scientists, and researchers do have assistants, but not 140 of them, which is the size of Ateliers Jean Nouvel, whose head office is in Paris but which maintains site offices in London, Madrid, Barcelona, Rome, and Minneapolis.

This is not to take anything away from Nouvel, an imaginative if sometimes heavy-handed architect. He deserves credit for assembling—and leading—the talented teams that get his designs built. But teams they are. One of the most striking features of the bullet-shaped Agbar Tower in Barcelona, designed in association with the firm b720 Arquitectos, is its shimmering exterior glass screen. The screen was fabricated by the Italian firm Permasteelisa, one of the leading curtain-wall manufacturers in the world, responsible for some of the most striking walls of recent times—including that of Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, Norman Foster's Hearst Building in New York, and Coop Himmelblau's BMW Welt in Munich.

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The Pritzker Prize promotes the fiction that buildings spring from the imagination of an individual architect—the master builder. This wasn't true in the Middle Ages, when there were real master builders, and it isn't true today. The modern architect works with scores of specialists, first and foremost structural engineers, without whom most architects today would be lost. Armies of consultants are responsible for everything from acoustics and lighting to energy conservation and security. Fabricators like Permasteelisa manufacture—and influence the design of—specialized building components, and contractors put the whole thing together.

Construction has become so complex that responsibility for design and building is commonly split between design architects and so-called executive architects, who oversee the preparation of construction documents and supervise the building process. The international nature of high-profile architectural practices—Ateliers Jean Nouvel is currently building 40 projects in 13 countries—means that local associate firms like b720 Arquitectos also play a key role in the process. Given the messy and unpredictable nature of construction, it is often the person on the building site who makes critical design decisions.

The other crucial ingredient for a successful building is the client, not only because he pays for it—though that is no mean contribution, since building costs are notoriously difficult to estimate. It is often said that good buildings require good clients, and great buildings demand great clients—who will support the architect but also challenge him. It is surely no coincidence, as John Silber points out in Architecture of the Absurd, that Gehry's IAC headquarters building in New York, designed for Barry Diller, is the best work the architect has done in years.

The fact that architecture is a team sport is what makes buildings so interesting. Art is often chiefly the reflection of an individual sensibility, but architecture tells us something about the society that produced it, its technology, its values, its taste. In that sense, building buildings is more like making movies than creating personal works of art. The Academy Awards recognize that the auteur theory of filmmaking has little relevance to making major movies; that's why Oscars are awarded in all those categories—art direction, sound mixing, makeup—and why the best-picture prize is given to the producers, not the director, writer, or actors. Perhaps the Pritzker should be given to the "best building." The prize would be picked up by the architect, the engineer, the builder, and, oh yes, the client.

Witold Rybczynski is Slate's architecture critic His latest book is The Biography of a Building: How Robert Sainsbury and Norman Foster Built a Great Museum. Visit his Web site. Follow him on Twitter.

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