Architecture, Martha Thorne, Pritzker Architecture Prize

The Pritzker Prize ‘can do better’ at involving architects from the Middle East says Martha Thorne

During an exclusive interview with designMENA, Martha Thorne, executive president of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, said the Prtizker can do more to involve architects from the Middle East.

While the list of laureates includes individuals from various countries and regions across the globe, the majority are European, despite a rising number of Japanese architects. The 2018 laureate Balkrishna Doshi is the first Indian architect on the list, and Iraqi-born, British architect, Zaha Hadid is the only representative from the Middle East.

“In the very beginning, I’m sure it was difficult to get information from all around the world,” Thorne said. “In certain places there were more publications, and more information readily flowed than from other places.”

Thorne added that when making a choice, the jury do not focus on geography – “it’s not a competition between countries like the Olympics,” she added. “I think that when she [Hadid] won, people didn’t talk so much about her birthplace – she was so long in the UK.”.

Thorne explained that the “region is young in terms of contemporary architecture in a lot of ways”, and that factors like political situations have affected the prize’s lack of focus on the Middle East. She, however, admitted that “more attention needs to be paid” to the region.

“The countries in the Middle East are so very different and the architectural results are so very different and fascinating. I agree I can do better and I will do better,” she said.

Is the Pritzker Architecture Prize still relevant? 

Celebrating its 40th anniversary, the Pritzker Architecture Prize remains the most important accolade within the field of architecture.

“I think [the Pritzker Architecture Prize] is relevant because it is independent, it is international,” she said. “The jury members make a decision not reflecting an institution or a company. It is their own personal responsibility.”

Thorne explained that over the years, the laureates chosen by the jury have reflected a number of messages that are relevant across the field of architecture, as well as in keeping with the Pritzker’s focus on ‘the art of architecture and service to humanity’; such as with Alejandro Aravena’s work in social housing or Shigeru Ban’s work in disaster relief.

Thorne, however, added that in order to stay relevant, amidst a more vocally critical audience, the Pritzker needs to continue making good choices in its list of architects.

“Clearly, the Priztker has to continue to make good choices in the winners, otherwise no one will pay any attention,” she said. “There is more criticism today than there was before and I think that has to do with technology and with a very knowledgeable audience.

“But I think they [the jury] have made, on the whole, excellent choices with a message, and I think that’s why [the Priztker Prize] is relevant.”

Humanitarian architecture 

2016 was possibly the most controversial year for the Priztker Prize when it awarded Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, whose portfolio largely consists of projects that aim to improve the lives of underprivileged populations, from social housing to buildings that respond to natural disasters.

The architectural community questioned the nature of the Pritzker Prize which, first and foremost, is to be awarded to an architect for the overall evaluation of his or her work without any seeming political agenda.

Patrick Schumacher, principal and director at Zaha Hadid Architects, wrote a public post, stating that “the Pritzker Prize has mutated into a prize for humanitarian work“.

Thorne defended the Pritzker’s choice, adding that humanitarian and world issues should be a vital consideration, and is in direct relation to the prize’s goals.

“For me as an individual, and not as a representative of the prize, but as Martha Thorne, it is fundamental in architecture. Architecture is the service for people, it is the built environment for people; it is not the built environment for pictures,” she said.

“So I think in the case of Aravena, the important thing is that he changed the playing field. He gave architects political clout. He gave them strength to negotiate with administrations and with governments, which is something that is an empowerment.”

She continued: “I think the big error in Patrick’s quote is the idea that something is beautiful or humanitarian. If something is good architecture and is aesthetically beautiful, it has to be functional, it has to be sustainable and it has to have some message, some theoretical basis and hopefully some contribution to humanity. I disagree that they are polar opposites. There is good architecture that embodies all of that.”