Wednesday, February 29, 2012

81. The little Pritzker Committee that Almost Could

Last night “Gudle” who blogs from China tipped me off to the fact that Wang Shu had won the Pritzker. My immediate reaction was:

 “Wow! I am almost surprised.”

Why almost?

As a pretext you can read here, here and here.

Although Wang departs moderately from the standard statistical norms, if you look closely he fits the typical biographical profile. Compare with SANAA’s profile here:
You can see that he and his wife Lu Wenyu had a breakthrough stage in their practice where they were being published a lot. Although I did not know what they looked like, I immediately recognized the Ningbo Museum because it had been on the cover of Mark Magazine a few issues back. They were not just local stars anymore; they were on the world stage.
Next, if you look at their professional biography, they had already started to be recognized by other institutions. This is what the Pritzker committee looks for, it does not take risks. It chooses safe bets that have been pre-vetted by other institutions. The pair has won the German Shelling Architecture Prize, and in 2011 they received the French Gold Medal from the Academy of Architecture. Their works were recognized by the Holcim Awards for Sustainable Construction in the Asia Pacific and the Architecture Art Award of China. That many awards mean these folks have been properly vetted and primed for the Pritzker.

To add to this, he has been the head of the architecture department of the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou since 2000, and had already started the global lecture and teaching circuitjust like Zumthor before him. His visiting lecturer and professorship around the world included Harvard University, University of Texas, UCLA and University of Pennsylvania. The holy grail of Pritzker credentials is the Harvard teaching position which almost every recent awardee has under his belt.

Not only that, they have done their promotion home work too; they participated in the Venice Biennale and exhibited in Hong Kong, Brussels, Berlin, and Paris.
The third a final key is the Seminal built project which usually comes through winning a major competition and demonstrates artistic pragmatic and intellectual components. Again we are looking at the Ningbo Museum. You can read more about why this is so significant in a seminal way here.

What is the least surprising but at the same time incalculably shocking is their attitude toward the female members of our species. I am now convinced that there must be some sort of secret oath taken by all incoming jurors (both male and female) to uphold the dominance of the male specie over the female in the starchitecture world. It is mind boggling. They had a scandal some years ago when they gave the prize to Robert Venturi without acknowledging his professional partner and wife Denise Scott Brown: They were clearly in the wrong and the whole world agreed. Next, the reverse situation came up when they decided to give the work SANAA - Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa; in this case Ryue was evidently the sidekick that eventually became an equal. If they were to play Batman & Robin, Sejama would be Batman and Ryue would be Robin. Let’s just face that fact. Sejema would ride the bike and Rue would sit in the side pouch and say “holy great architecture you have made Sejema! I like it”. He is about 10 years her junior and started out as an intern in her office. Yet when the Pritzker was looking at the body of work of the company that was founded and led by Sejema years before she made Ryue a partner, they gave the award to the both of them. It was the fair thing to do.

Now that we have another husbandand and wife team slightly in the reverse situation, here is your chance Pritzker committee to right your wrong and turn the page on a past that we would all rather forget. But what did you do? You poured salt on the wound for Christ sake!

WANG Shu and LU Wenyu founded the Amateur Architecture Studio together in 1998. Lu was not an apprentice she was a full partner right from the beginning and if they are a husband and wife team as any married couple knows they discuss important issues together and make decisions collectively. So when Wang was asked if he thought his wife should be sharing the prize with him? This is what he had to say:

“Yes, every time when I finish the first sketch of a building, she is the first one to see it. And if she doesn’t like it, I go back and draw it again.”

Ok, to be fair let’s give the Pritzker commitee a chance to explain themselves. When they were asked why Lu Wenyu was not was given the prize as well, Martha Thorne, executive director of the Pritzker jury said this in their defense:

"The prize goes to a person or people (not a firm). The jury carefully evaluates all aspects of the professionals nominated for the prize. When it is a team effort (as most of architecture is), this is especially challenging. In the case of this year's winner, the jury looked at his contributions to the built work, teaching, theory, etc., and felt that he was exceptional and worthy of the prize."


That’s your defense?

What are you Mitt Romney in a skirt?
That’s the most political non-answer I have ever heard and it does not even make any sense either.

The prize goes to a person or people (not a firm)?

Oh...that’s right. I forgot, Hertzog and de Meuran is that two headed creature that escaped from the preppie circus back in the day and SANAA is an acronym for the other two headed monster that had their start on the Muppet Show. They are person/people not firms.


I know it is challenging...but Lu is an educator too, and I would think that she stands on the same theoretical level as her husband as well. To be really honest, their work is not very theoretical to begin with, and that’s one of its nicer qualities in my opinion.

You know what gets to me?

Its that they play this silly public relations game where they put the person you think would be most disgusted by it to be their face of defense to the public (in this case, one of the female members of the jury). You know when the politician gets caught in a sex scandal and they bring their wives to stand beside them and smile while they fake an apology? It’s like saying to everyone out there: “Hey, if the bitch is down with it then what are you all yapping about?”

I will say I am neither convinced by your explanation nor your attitude and leave it at that.

Ok! those blunders aside, here is what surprised me.

Firstly, they are doing something that in my view for the first time genuinely contributes to humanity in some way. Wang Shu and Lu Wenyu’s work demonstrates a sensitivity to their local traditions and a deliberate resistance to China’s blatant lack of regard for its own architectural heritage. By giving them the spotlight, the committee has made them in some way an example for other architects to follow. Perhaps this attention could bring a focus on what they are doing to the broader architecture and building industry in China. Perhaps it give some umph to those architects and developers in China who would like to go in that direction but thought they were alone. Perhaps it may put a question mark behind China’s thirst for the new and disdain for the old. It may or it may not but it is worth a try.

You see little Pritzker Committee I knew you had it in you. I knew there was an ounce humanity and substance in you. Last year I implored you to take a Lesson from Brad & Angelena and in your own way you did. You went a little outside your comfort zone by choosing someone in Asia outside of Japan. That’s a little step in my book but a big step for you non-the-less, but that’s how we all start. No?

You also chose to cut down on the age limit. Instead of a European Caucasian architect around the age of 62.97, you went with an Asian male at the ripe young age of 48. Well don’t hurt yourself. I know that must have been quite a challenge but you did it. That’s what counts.

You guys remind me of the little train that could. It came up on that hill and it kept on saying
“I think I can, I think I can, I think I can”
and suddenly it did.

Now all you have to add to your mantra is:

“Women are our equals, women are our equals, women are our equals”

It doesn’t quite have the same ring to it but it just might work.

Conrad Newel

Liberating Minds Since August 2007

Related Notes:
76. Predicting The Pritzker Part II: Take a Lesson from Brad & Angelena
75. Predicting The Pritzker Part 1
68. Take a lesson from SANAA
60. Play Peter, the Pritzker Peddling Hermit Genius

Friday, February 3, 2012

82. You Don't Have to be Good - Part 1: BIG, JDS, PLOT

I don't want to be interesting, I want to be good
-Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

Good work + good promotion = fame in architecture
-Conrad Newel

Good: That is the common denominator in the two quotes above, and that is what I would like to zero in on in this note; specifically the former part of the equation "good work" which I have so endearingly engrained in the consciousness of all my long time readers.

I had a teacher in college that once told me that to be a good architect you have got to innovate; push the envelope and do something interesting or you have to go the way of Mies and raise the level of precision and craftsmanship to a level of high quality. I have always respected Mies but I also felt he was too extreme in his insistence on quality to the point that it was quite often boring for me, so I tended towards architecture that was attempting to do something interesting. My preference for interesting works however did not mean that I did not appreciate quality in craftsmanship and detail. To the contrary, for me good architecture means a combination of both.

So earlier this year I went on a trip to Copenhagen and I thought naturally I would grab my copy of "Yes Is More" to read on the flight over. With the book in one hand and a map of Copenhagen with all of BIG's projects clearly circled on the other, I embarked on finding and seeing all of these exciting works first hand.
The first stop was the harbor bath project that was done under PLOT with Julien De Smedt. As I approached, I recognized the profile from all the images I have seen of it before, but as I got closer it became strangely unfamiliar. The bright golden color of the wooden planks that made up the structure has aged to a dirty splintered gray. [Addendum: february 9, 2012: Some of my readers have informed me that this may be because the wood used here was either larch or some other kind of local Scandinavian wood that resists natural forces without need for any finish. It turns gray naturally and was most likely intentional by the architects. If that's the case I concede this point and kudos to the architects here] There was a roughness and uncraftly quality to it that was not present in any of the photographs or images that was seen in the publications. It seemed somewhat crooked and shabby. This brought to mind another maxim that was impressed upon me while I was still in school:

A good building should enhance in character with age like a fine wine; Since most buildings will last about 100 years or more, a good building should be designed with that in mind and consideration should be given to how it will appear as it ages.
Time and the effects of its aging was not considered here. I was disappointed but not deflated. Surely this was a fluke, BIG and JDS are arguably among the world’s most celebrated and exciting architects today.

The next stop was the VM apartments also done under PLOT. The buildings are located in a new suburban development just outside of Copenhagen called Ørestad. You can read more about it here. While on the monorail that takes you out there I saw quite a few interesting apartment buildings that caught my eyes. The area seemed recently developed and quite a lot of the buildings out there were attempting to do something interesting in some way or form. Though I did not know who the architects were, they were attention worthy and I wanted to at least go over and take a closer look. However, my time was limited and I was here to see the VM Apartments and the Mountain dwellings that I had read so much about.

Arriving was akin to seeing the statue of liberty for the first time. I have seen the images so many times before it felt like I knew it very intensely yet there it was; a strange yet familiar icon. Approaching it from a distance was exciting, it was just as how I imagined it: the genius man made mountain stood there shining in the Scandinavian light. It was a beautiful thing to see. Then there was the jeweled array of razor-sharp Leanardo DeCaprio balconies gallantly defending their facade.

As I got off the train and started approaching it up close I began to see another side of the project that I had hoped not to see. Just by looking at the quality of the detailing of the elements used; the fixtures, the handrails, etc. I could only imagine that someone was trying to save money. Either the developers were pressuring the architects to be thrifty or there wasn't much money in the project to begin with.

Little or no thought given to how the building or its materials ages and transforms as it weathers over time. The wood as you can see is already water-rotted and beginning to lose its integrity over just a few winter cycles. This demonstrates a gross lack of understanding of the properties of wood and its behavior in winter climates or capitulation to economic pressures to cut costs by using inappropriate wood sans proper finishing and correct detailing.

Facade elements already beginning to fall apart

Long institutional corridor with poor day lighting and fluorescent light strips glaring directly into your eyes.

Optimistic colors and snazzy graphics painted on top of sloppy concrete-work and cheap metal fittings: Clearly visible in the foreground is efflorescence leaking from grotesque concrete surfaces. Further in the background are water puddles accumulating because of shoddy leveling and grading work on the parking deck.

 Either way, at close range certain parts of the structures looks one grade up from the temporary utilitarian structures one might find at a construction site. There seemed to be no consideration or strategy for how the building's material would appear over time as it ages or how it would look after the first two weeks or so after the building was finished and after all the press photos were taken: Pieces were already falling apart and the materials used made it feel more like a temporary Hollywood stage set.

Whether Bjarke and Julian were simply making the best of what resources and budget they had is a whole other discussion. It could very well be that the both of them had a modest budget and they passionately worked their asses off to make something reasonably decent; in which case they should be commended for that deed. I tend to lean towards this theory, but since I have never seen a report that compares what the proposed budgets were and what the actual cost of the building turned out to be then I really don't know.
My point here is not to denounce BIG, JDS or PLOT as bad architects. To the contrary, I think they are probably better than most of the unknown Joe Blow architects out there that you have never heard about. The point I am trying to make is that famous architecture and quality architecture are not necessarily synonymous.

What BIG has been able to do is create buildings animated by playful and innovative ideas, poorly detailed with cheap commercial grade materials and clearly present/promote them with contagious enthusiasm and nifty little diagrams. The bottom line of this formula is that you can produce very interesting and popular buildings on the cheap. It wins you lots of competitions and makes you the darling of developers looking to turn a nice profit. This very project have received more awards and accolades than I can count. They are the inspiration for a great part of all the new projects that are being copied and pasted throughout the architectural hemispheres. I see copies of them in almost every architecture school I visit, and a lot of new residential projects all over the world. Just go to ArchDaily and browse around a bit and you will see the influence of these buildings. The ideas and main concepts are very interesting and admittedly worth inspiring the world, but qualitatively speaking, they are not very different from the crappy commercial office building that you can easily find at any strip mall down the road from where you live. This is simply put wonderful and interesting ideas built of crudely detailed shit: And that's a pity because I think the ideas and concepts that they represent deserve better.

I have never relay met Julian but I have met Bjarke and to be honest, he seems like a genuinely nice fellow. His personality, enthusiasm and mere force of character spits in the face of the notion that you have to be a conceited archi-speaking dick-head in order to be a successful starchitect. That's one of the major reasons I root for him and that is why I want to see him succeed.

However to continue to heap praises and accolades on these projects of his without pointing out their obvious deficiencies is to really do a disservice to architecture. It sends a message to the younger architects who take inspiration from it that this is acceptable, that this is something to strive for, not something to surpass.

After seeing these works from up close, the best conclusion I can come to is that the level of quality and craftsmanship was disappointingly shitty while the marketing and presentation of ideas was absolute genius. I am hereby disputing (or modifying) the maxim that I often touted on this blog

Now I will have to say something like this:

Good (and /or interesting) work + Good Promotion = Fame in Architecture

The one thing I now know with all certainty is that the only thing that is invariably consistent with famous architecture is just good marketing and publicity.

Conrad Newel

Liberating Minds Since August 2007