Shortly after the announcement of Peter Zumthor as this year's Pritzker Prize winner, critics took aim at the Swiss architect's focus on the aesthetic and experiential qualities of space and his apparent lack of politics or confrontation with the myriad crises at hand today. Examples include Christopher Hawthorne's assertion that "Zumthor's work has nothing to do with social activism, disaster relief, sustainability, new design software, mega-cities, affordability or infrastructure -- all of which have crowded together recently near the top of the profession's agenda -- [his winning is] a boost for the idea that architecture is fundamentally an aesthetic rather than a political profession." James S. Russell calls the winner a "Swiss Hermit" and says the jury "avoids contemporary challenges" and "left me wishing it had been more adventurous." Clay Risen goes furthest in his call to "Fix the Pritzker," stating, "there's a real opportunity to reorient architecture toward more humane, socially engaged goals. Getting rid of the Pritzker—at least as we know it today—would be a good start."
Additional, less-critical coverage includes Paul Goldberger fairly typical portrait of "Zumthor's Quiet Power," Richard Lacayo's coverage in Time Magazine, Thomas de Monchaux's essay on "The Mystery of Peter Zumthor" and interviews with Zumthor at The Architect's Journal, with Blair Kamin and with Edward Lifson.
I'm interested in addressing the critiques linked in the first paragraph above, ones that think Zumthor is not a political architect because he does not deal with what are held to be political issues, such as those mentioned by Christopher Hawthorne. Politics in these cases is defined one way, an engagement with government and its policies. Architects are always dealing with government, even if they are building a relatively insignificant structure like a hot dog stand, because they are following codes, zoning and other rules established by governments. But Hawthorne and others want architects to go beyond this and engage governments in their choice of commissions and their working process, leading to buildings that formally express this engagement. I would argue that these three parts of architecture (project selection, process, formal product) are political in Zumthor's work, though not in the view of politics held above, and that architects can learn by his actions.
The definition of politics I would adopt is "the often internally conflicting interrelationships among people in a society." Henri Lefebvre's assertion that "(social) space is a (social) product" is perhaps the best sentence describing this fact, though it gets lost in today's tumble around big issues and bigger plans. Basically this definition and quote situate all architects and their projects within a political process of building and shaping space. Architects are but one role in the process, which also involves the government, the landowner, the builder, the current occupants and future occupants, the neighbors, and more. In capitalist society certain roles are stronger in shaping space, but in most cases all are able to take part in the process, even though it may not be so obvious, so easy or so successful. Architectural projects in democratic societies can be seen as the utmost expression of politics, in that the conflicting interrelationships are played out in space, with the help of money, power and (free) speech. Architects tend to either play down this fact, in favor of relegating the political to the client and ignoring the importance of form in public space's contested realm, or taking up the cause to the extreme, like Architecture for Humanity (AFH) and other architects fighting for the public whose voice and wants are usually squashed in the process of building. Basically, all architects are political -- like it or not -- and how they practice situates them within a gradient from ignorant to activist.
So where is Zumthor in this gradient? Returning to the three parts of the architectural process mentioned above (ignoring teaching, writing and other marginal aspects that influence the process but are not directly involved), he is closer to being an activist than an ignoramus, because he is very selective of the projects he takes, he works on projects for an amount of time much longer than most architects, and he creates buildings at odds with most developer-driven architectural production today. Of course these are all related (the second aspect makes the first a prerequisite, for example), but in this way of practicing Zumthor is advocating for an architecture not only distilled to its essence (as many critics attest, correctly or incorrectly) but also that engages its physical, social and political contexts in a very particular way. He does not choose projects that aim to make a quick buck or whose presence is harmful environmentally or socially. He works a long time to make buildings that last a long time, not disposable architecture. And his forms raise one's appreciation of his or her surroundings, without excluding everybody but a select few (many of his projects require payment for admission, so they are not totally accessible).
Zumthor is not the model architect, that is obvious. His idiosyncratic ways and designs, though, should be commended as an alternative to more standard practices that are complacent in their adverse impact on the environment and social life. Few architects can practice the way he does, but the same can be said about architects or organizations like AFH. I believe we need these and other architects who make the political gradient that much more diverse, calling attention to the architect's role in the "conflicting interrelationships among people in a society."