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Pritzker's Honor

Notes from Clifford A. Pearson Senior Editor

As a full moon rose over Monticello on a pleasant spring evening, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron stepped onto a temporary stage on the back lawn of Thomas Jefferson’s home and became the first architectural team to win the Pritzker Prize. For 23 years, the august Pritzker jury had honored only individual architects, even though most buildings are the result of collaboration not solo heroics. In 1991, the award went to Robert Venturi, not Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. Knowing that he does not work alone, Venturi now says he will no longer accept architectural honors that do not include his partner—a position that has precluded him from winning the American Institute of Architect’s Gold Medal, for example. (Although two architects—Gordon Bunshaft and Oscar Niemeyer won the Pritzker in 1988, they were honored as individuals, not a team, and won because the jury was deadlocked that year.)

Herzog and de Meuron have known each other since kindergarten and have practiced together their entire career. So it would have been ludicrous to honor one without the other. Which one would you pick—the taller one, the balder one, the one who talks more? Their firm actually has two other partners—Harry Gugger and Christine Binswanger—so the issue of architectural authorship gets a little sticky even with this year’s winners. But at least there is a certain logic to focusing on the firm’s two founding partners.

Of course, including everyone who had a finger on the CAD mouse isn’t the right approach to architectural awards either. The whole idea of awards, after all, is to turn the spotlight on shining talent, to select the few from the many. Individuals, especially those with strong personalities, are almost always more memorable and attention-getting than groups. Honor a laundry list of people and you’re not likely to get much space in newspapers or general-interest magazines. And bringing architecture to the attention of the public is a key goal of programs like the Pritzker, and rightly so.

Dining on poached salmon, veal medallions, miniature tomatoes, and mixed greens, the black-tie crowd at Monticello on May 7 raised glasses of wine but few objections to this year’s Pritzker winners. The buzz was mostly positive. No backbiting or second-guessing the jury. Although only in their early 50s, Herzog and de Meuron have an impressive list of sparkling buildings to their credit and their Tate Modern in London is probably the most talked-about project to be completed in the last 12 months. The pair of architects is hot, in the news, and remains busy with high-profile projects such as the de Young Museum in San Francisco, offices for Prada in New York, and an addition to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. They are clearly in their prime, not past it.

Indeed, the Pritzker jury has mostly steered clear of geezers recently—having honored Rem Koolhaas last year and Christian de Portzamparc in 1994 when he was still in his 40s. As a result, the award has the aura of fresh air, not the kiss of death. Since the Pritzker is one of architecture’s most reliable newsmakers, it’s important to keep this program vibrant and relevant. Recognizing the collaborative nature of the art and honoring teams that are pushing design in new directions are good ways of doing that.