ARCHITECTURE VIEW; What Pritzker Winners Tell Us About the Prize

By Paul Goldberger
Published: May 29, 1988

When Gordon Bunshaft and Oscar Neimeyer were named the joint recipients of the Pritzker Prize in Chicago last week, the event marked the end of the first decade of existence for the prize, at this moment the most celebrated architecture award there is. The decision of the Pritzker family of Chicago and its Hyatt Foundation to offer $100,000 each year to a notable architect gave the prize immediate credibility upon its initiation in 1979, not to mention cachet. By 1988 standards, $100,000 is still a handsome piece of change. No wonder architects have come to speak of the Pritzker Prize as their peers in science and literature speak of the Nobel - also a prize that established itself by the magnitude of its award.

But the quality of the Pritzker winners, who with this year's double award now number 11, is the real test of the prize's value. They are a strong group, although their composition reveals a cautious, perhaps even conservative, bent among the jurors. The Pritzker Prize juries, which since 1979 have been chaired by J. Carter Brown, director of the National Gallery, have been serious and methodical in their deliberations. If the Pritzkers wanted their prize to have an air of gravity, they have gotten it.

The intent of the prize is to honor a career of achievement in the art of architecture, not a specific building, and as a result the prize has generally not gone to younger architects, or been particularly sensitive to new directions. Unlike the Oscars or the Pulitzers, it is not an indication of the latest new works of importance. It is more of a capstone to a career than a stimulus to new achievements.

That is surely true of this year's Pritzker winners, both of whom are distinctly out of step with the trends of the moment. Gordon Bunshaft, the 79-year-old architect who for many years was the most powerful design partner in the New York office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, is a confirmed modernist. His masterworks include Lever House, 140 Broadway and the Manufacturers Hanover Bank. All in New York, they are glass buildings which are justly considered triumphs of postwar American modernism.

In the 1970's, as architecture moved away from the esthetic of glass and steel, Mr. Bunshaft remained firmly committed to modernism, but his style evolved into a somewhat aggressively heavy, sculptural approach that was less well received than his earlier work. His buildings during this period included the round Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, the travertine-clad Lyndon Baines Johnson Library in Austin, Tex., and the sloping facade skyscraper at 9 West 57th Street in New York.

Oscar Niemeyer, who is 80 years old, has been South America's most respected modern architect for more than a generation. More a disciple of Le Corbusier than Mies van der Rohe, he is known for work that is sculptural in a lyrical way, sometimes almost fanciful; his forms have often been described as plastic. Mr. Niemeyer, less of a corporate architect than Mr. Bunshaft, is most famous for his work on the capital city of Brasilia, for which he created a master plan and designed most of the major public buildings.

Now, there are few designs more distant from current thinking than Brasilia, where buildings sit alone and aloof from their surroundings, more like works of sculpture than anything else. Brasilia epitomizes an attitude toward the city that has been essentially discredited today, replaced, happily, by a much greater awareness of the need to integrate buildings with one another and with the streets on which they sit. Should the architect of a place like Brasilia - or of buildings like Mr. Bunshaft's more bombastic late works - be awarded a prize like the Pritzker?