On Awards

When Arata Isozaki died at the end of 2022 at the age of 91, nearly all of the news stories and obituaries mentioned that he was a Pritzker Architecture Prize laureate, and quite a few also included mention of the Pritzker Prize in the headline. Although the Pritzker has long been likened to the Nobel Prize, the importance of "architecture's Nobel" in coverage of stories involving their laureates also puts it on par with the Academy Awards. "Oscar-winning" is a common phrase in an obituary or other headline involving an actor, director, or producer who won an Academy Award at one point in their life. Mention of Pritzker, Oscar, Nobel, or other prestigious prizes signals to readers not so well versed in architecture/Hollywood/science/etc. that the subject of the story is/was important in their field, just as it elevates the prize within the field, indicating that it is the highest honor that person could garner.

Awards like the Pritzker also serve to structure the architectural calendar. The Pritzker Prize is announced in the Spring, typically in March, a few months after a glut of year-end awards have made headlines, including the AIA Gold Medal and other awards from the American Institute of Architects announced in December. The Stirling Prize and other RIBA awards happen in the fall, as does the Praemium Imperiale. The pandemic threw off the timing of some awards, but for the most part the spacing apart of awards throughout the year ensures more exposure than would happen if all of them fell in December or January, and it results in a never-ending stream of awards coverage in architectural media. In my editorial duties at World-Architects, I try to pick and choose the most headline-worthy awards, seeing them as ways of learning about great architecture and signals of what the field is prioritizing at any given moment; it's hard, though, because there are just so many awards now.

The architecture awards mentioned above fall into two types (my terms): patronal (the Pritzker is given by the family that owns the Hyatt hotels and runs the Hyatt Foundation; the Praemium Imperiale is given by the Japan Art Association) and professional (the AIA and RIBA awards are given by the membership bodies of registered architects in the US and UK, respectively). Many other awards fall into these two types, but a third type is more prevalent these days, what I would call media awards. They consist of multiple awards in multiple categories given by companies or organizations rooted in the media. These include the Architizer A+ Awards, Dezeen Awards, Architecture MasterPrize, and the World Architecture Festival (WAF), among many others. Although they often crown a "best of" award, there are a number of awards subsidiary to it, such that many architects can boast of winning an award on their websites and social media channels. WAF, for example, awards a "World Building of the Year" as well as dozens of other best-in-category awards that serve its best-in-show format. More awards equals more exposure; that seems to be the point of these awards. 

Even if architecture prizes vary in terms of what they award (architect or building), their geographical scope (local, national, regional, international), or process (submissions vs. nominations), consistent across  all of them is a reliance on a jury to determine winners. Awards convey a sense of objectivity, but ultimately they are decided by a group of people, ranging from a handful to dozens, and often chaired by a person who may direct the rest of the jury with a strong position or, in concert with the organization, may even override the jury's decision. I've served on awards juries and have witnessed firsthand how decisions made by me and my fellow jurors were not reflected in the awards ultimately given out. Far from objective, awards are subjective and are motivated by particular people, companies, or other interests. As such, they serve as barometers of the present moment — warts and all — more than being the thing that defines a person, no matter what news headlines may tell us.
Awards are the subject of very few architecture books (I'm aware of only three Pritzker Prize books), but two recent titles led me to write this post:
The Rise of Awards in Architecture is an examination of the title phenomenon from the 1980s to the present. It was edited by Jean-Pierre Chupin, Carmela Cucuzzella and Georges Adamczyk, the first two who previously edited Architecture Competitions and the Production of Culture, Quality and Knowledge: An International Inquiry, a not entirely unrelated subject. In addition to an introduction by the editors, The Rise of Awards in Architecture consists of ten essays by academics, most of them, like the editors, from Canada. Each essay focuses on a niche of awards in architecture: the Pritzker Prize, the Prix de Rome, sustainable awards, heritage awards, book awards, and awards and education. While the inclusion of the Pritzker (established 1979) is expected, as is the Prix de Rome (established by the Canadian Council for the Arts in 1987) in the context of the Canada-heavy contributions, the book limits itself to what I described as the patronal and professional awards, not venturing into the recent trends of media awards.

My interests, not to mention the subject of this blog, pushed me to jump into the book with Lucie Palombi's essay, "Do Architecture Book Awards Have Literary Ambition?" It's not a rhetorical question. Palombi approaches the question systematically through the analysis of four awards in three countries: Alice Davis Hitchcock Award (USA), DAM Architectural Book Award (Germany), Prix du Livre de l'Académie d'Architecture (France), and Grand Prix du Livre de la Ville de Briey (France). Her analysis aligns them with comparable, and older, literary prizes in their respective countries. Although she admits early in the essay that "our study cannot ignore that one does not read an architecture text as one reads a novel," Palombi concludes (this isn't a spoiler really) that the organizers of the four awards "have the ambition to elevate architecture books to the status of literary writings." Even with this ambition, architecture book awards gain very little coverage in the media and, in turn, generate barely any debate within the architectural profession or in academia. This is definitely due to the way architecture books are looked at rather than read, but it's nevertheless disheartening, because architectural publishing could help from sustained debates over books, both awarded and overlooked.

While Palombi's systematic analysis of book awards is necessary reading for this blogger, the most insightful and well-written essay in the collection is Dana Buntrock's "Big in Japan: What the Nobel Prize Reveals about the Pritzker Prize," the first of the book's ten essays. Buntrock, a professor at UC Berkeley and author of books on Japanese architecture, takes a critical look at the Pritzker Prize in relation to the Nobel Prize, which the Pritzker was established to be an architectural equivalent of, and using recipients of the two prizes from Japan to illustrate many of her points. Focusing here on the Pritzker, Buntrock's well-researched essay illuminates the prize's inner workings, which are highly secretive; each of the annual prizes is basically limited to official announcements and jury statements, with very little peering under the hood. The author looks at IRS statements for the Hyatt Foundation, for example, to reveal annual PR costs of around $100,000 — the same as the award itself, which has not increased since 1979! — as well as surprisingly low pay for executive director Martha Thorne. The essay touches on numerous other aspects of the award (the jury makeup, lobbying for the prize, juries visiting buildings, the VIP galas, the funding of the Hyatt Foundation, etc.), but Buntrock concludes that any ambitions for the Pritzker to be "architecture's Nobel" remain unfulfilled, because of its lack of transparency but also because it has been slow to change in relation to social demands. Its denial of a petitioned and popular retroactive Pritzker for Denise Scott Brown set the prize back, but the apparent shepherding of the jury by laureate Alejandro Aravena in recent years has brought the Pritzker closer to the conversations being had now in architecture and beyond.

One award in architecture that goes against the trend, and actually has regular publications devoted to it, is the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, the triennial award of the Aga Khan Development Network that "seeks to identify and encourage building concepts that successfully address the needs and aspirations of societies across the world, in which Muslims have a significant presence." I like the award for the diversity of the projects awarded, with modern and traditional buildings, landscapes, and preservation projects, and the fact each cycle brings to light projects I might not otherwise know about. Media coverage is fairly prevalent for the awards, and the AKDN website has a lot of information available for the winning projects; nevertheless, the books are still valuable documents, with presentations of the winning projects alongside essays from the jurors and other contributions. The books accompanying each award cycle have been done with different publishers, often in groups of threes. Most recently, Zürich's Lars Müller Publishers put out books for the cycles in 2010, 2013, and 2016, and Berlin's ArchiTangle has been taking care of the award publications since then, with its first, Architecture in Dialogue, in 2019 and the most recent one, Inclusive Architecture, last year. (In between it put out Architecture of Coexistence: Building Pluralism, featuring three case studies of Aga Khan Award-winning projects.)

My favorite Aga Khan Award publications are for the 9th and 10th cycles in 2004 and 2007, the first published by Thames & Hudson and the second by I.B. Tauris; both were designed by Irma Boom and are letter-size paperbacks (with flaps). Although I appreciate the way Boom used color to organize the books, and the paper size allows the photographs and drawings to be fairly large, the main reason I like them so much are the standout projects in them, particularly Snøhetta's Bibliotheca Alexandrina in the 9th cycle and the Royal Netherlands Embassy in Addis Ababa in the 10th cycle. (Note: Award publications ten or more years old can be downloaded as PDFs from the AKDN website.) I'm guessing other people will do the same and buy the new award publication because of one or more of the winning projects — or even the finalists, as Inclusive Architecture, like Architecture in Dialogue, also includes them: 20 projects in total. The finalists are given ten pages, while the six winners — a refugee community space, an airport, a riverside landscape, the renovation of an Oscar Niemeyer building, a museum, and a school — are given a few pages more. 

What does The Rise of Awards in Architecture have to say about the Aga Khan Awards? Not much, unfortunately. Although the index, at just three pages, is severely incomplete and does not include the Aga Khan Awards, a helpful chapter-by-chapter appendix highlights the awards "analyzed or mentioned by chapter." Buntrock mentions it briefly, pointing out that it and the Praemium Imperiale, like the Nobel Prize, use outside experts in their two-tiered awards structures (the Pritzker Prize does not). Only chapter five, "How Did Canada Come to Host More than 100 Categories of Sustainable Awards?" by Sherif Goubran, otherwise includes the Aga Khan Awards in this appendix. But scanning that chart- and graph-heavy chapter yields no mention of it, which makes sense; even though Toronto is home to the Aga Khan Museum, designed by Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki, the Aga Khan Award and Canadian sustainability awards are basically unrelated pieces in the proliferation of architecture awards over the last few decades. Hardly exclusive to architecture, readers interested in learning more about the award phenomenon more broadly should look at James F. English's The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value, the seminal study mentioned in chapter five — and in numerous places throughout The Rise of Awards in Architecture.


  1. Dear reader and reviewer, as a co-editor of this book on awards, please note that indeed the index of awards by chapter misses an important mention of Aga Khan Awards in chapter 3 on quality (see pages 66 and 67). I do believe and actually show that the Aga Khan awards actually are exemplary in the current landscape of what you call patronal awards. Thank you again for your insightful review. Jean-Pierre Chupin.


Post a Comment

Comments are moderated for spam.