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Why No Nobel Prize For Architecture?

There is no Nobel or Pulitzer Prize for architects or urban planners. Such an omission is not necessarily surprising, since the design field is neither pure art nor practical or theoretical science. (Nor is it statesmanship, even with the inevitable political element of large building projects.) But there is no doubt that few other fields have as much impact on our everyday lives, in both public and private realms.

Over the last few decades, many have recognized that there should be formal, public recognition of the most accomplished architects outside of their own professional circles. And at least two prominent philanthropists—both based in the long architecturally-vibrant Chicago—have acted to make such an award a reality.

In 1979, the Pritzker family, owners of the Hyatt hotel chain, established a prize for architects that awards $100,000 annually. The late Jay Pritzker had been a fan of using trend-setting architects in his business, with Hyatt hotels becoming famous in the 1960s and ‘70s for their dramatic, glass-enclosed lobbies and elevators.

The first recipient of the Pritzker Prize was Philip Johnson, known for his minimalist Glass House and later more playful postmodern skyscrapers. Subsequent recipients of the award include some of the most famous contemporary architects—IM Pei, Frank Gehry, Norman Foster, and Rem Koolhaas, for example. These may not be household names for regular folks, but for say, average readers of the New York Times, they will likely be familiar, their conspicuous buildings now icons of the cities where the cosmopolitan elite tend to reside.

By 1988, architecture critic Paul Goldberger could report [1] in the Times that “architects have come to speak of the Pritzker Prize as their peers in science and literature speak of the Nobel … If the Pritzkers wanted their prize to have an air of gravity, they have gotten it.” At the time, Goldberger criticized the Pritzker selections as being focused on architects who treat buildings primarily as “pure objects,” rather than “having something to do with the physical and cultural makeup of the place in which they are built.”

Walt Disney Concert Hall, by architect Frank Gehry (Wikimedia Commons)

The trend Goldberger identified largely continued to the present day. Pritzker laureates known for monolithic slabs of glass may have been replaced with postmodern deconstructivists—for whom the primary aim is the formless “shock of the new”—but there has been little change to the trajectory of the Pritzker Prize as it approaches its fifth decade. This year’s Pritzker laureate, Indian architect Balkrishna Doshi, calls radical modernist Le Corbusier his “guru,” and while his public housing projects evince some characteristics of human-scale streets, other buildings display the cold features of Brutalism that often contribute to somewhat lifeless urban surroundings.

A more recently established alternative to the Pritzker, established by Chicago financier Richard Driehaus in 2003, has thus breathed new life into the conversation about architecture. For over a decade now, the Driehaus Prize, which is administered by the University of Notre Dame, has sought to recognize architects who would otherwise be ignored by the stifling ideology embraced by the Pritzker and the architectural establishment.

Its detractors might characterize the Driehaus Prize, if they acknowledge it at all, as a kind of reactionary embrace of tradition. It is true that the prize tends to lean toward architects who embrace classical forms, but perhaps its most overlooked virtue is its emphasis on creating vibrant places—what in the professional vernacular is often simply called “urbanism.”


The first recipient of the Driehaus Prize, the London-based Leon Krier, has written that “All buildings, large or small, public or private, have a public face, a facade; they therefore, without exception, have a positive or negative effect on the quality of the public realm, enriching or impoverishing it in a lasting and radical manner. The architecture of the city and public space is a matter of common concern to the same degree as laws and language—they are the foundation of civility and civilisation.”

This sentiment has carried down to the 16th recipients of the prize, French architects Marc Breitman and Nada Breitman-Jakov. The husband-and-wife team were recognized in January [2] for “their outstanding achievements in introducing human scale and proportion and the grace of classical architecture to large public housing developments in France and Holland, creating a sense of place as well as enhancing urban security and civic welfare.”

The Breitmans’ most well-known development, a neighborhood of Paris suburb Le Plessis-Robinson, had become a slum of undesirable public housing. Under the care of the Breitmans and other architects, it has been transformed into something that not only is unmistakably French, but could be assumed to be a wealthy neighborhood, such is the care that has gone into the new streetscape.

Le Plessis-Robinson, France (University of Notre Dame)

Along with the prize for the Breitmans, Notre Dame also announced that it would bestow the Henry Hope Reed Award—a recognition for non-architects named after one of the last century’s most important architectural critics—on a German businessman who has worked to restore a district of Dresden once left for dead after World War II.

The Dresden Neumarkt (Wikimedia Commons)

The alternative architectural prizes aren’t limited to those run by Notre Dame. The independent Institute of Classical Architecture and Art also recognizes the traditionally inclined with awards for architecture, education, history, and interior and landscape design [3]. This year’s honoree for her work in architectural education was Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, one of the founders of the New Urbanism movement (and co-laureate, with her husband Andres Duany, of the 2008 Driehaus Prize).

The Pritzker and Driehaus prizes are far from possessing the wide public prestige of the Nobel or Pulitzer brands—and the Driehaus Prize unsurprisingly receives far less media coverage than the avant-garde Pritzker awards. Yet we should praise the effort to elevate architecture and urbanism to as important an activity in civilization-building as any other art, science, or civic activity. And urbanists everywhere can be grateful that at least one of these prizes recognizes practitioners of a once nearly lost tradition, one that builds places at a human scale.

Lewis McCrary is executive editor of The American Conservative.

Follow @LewisMcCrary [4] Follow @NewUrbs [5]

12 Comments (Open | Close)

12 Comments To "Why No Nobel Prize For Architecture?"

#1 Comment By Here Am I On March 16, 2018 @ 10:39 am

Why no Nobel or Pulitzer for architects or urban planners? Because my profession, sucks.

It would be just nother chance to gush over the latest sterile mass afronting the senses, and dignity it as “art.” No thank you.

As for “urban design,” it is the study of how to centrally plan instantly what it took freedom and dreams hundreds of years to produce. Again, nope.

#2 Comment By LouisM On March 16, 2018 @ 7:58 pm

We once had art that elevated us, romanticized us, astounded us. Whether one was an a painter, sculpture, architect or musician it was a skill crafted over a lifetime. The greats didn’t need an award or media or 3rd party telling them this is great because it was self evident.

LeCorbusier and what I call “1970s planet of the apes architecture” was the Andy Warhol of architecture. It was no longer organic like Gaudi’s Cathedral or EB Green or HH Richardson. It no longer soared with prismatic plays on leaded prairie style windows of Frank Lloyd Wright. Today art is urine with a crucifix in it, stacks of cow dung and manequins…and Pollack inspired splashes and splotches indistinguishable from that produced by elephants and monkeys. The goal is not skill and craft but sensationalism, shock and sophistic gluttonous feeling. It is art for the artist and requires constant reinforcement by experts because the skill and craft are non-existent. Architecture has been following the same path of star architects who produce pop architecture. The overload of being in an in an un-natural environment where the human senses are both starved/deprived and excited/alienated after a period of time produces a similar result to a diabetic swinging from insufficient glucose to a glucose overload.

Frank Lloyd Wright knew this well when looking at the sighting of the gugenheim. The gugenheim sight was very pedestrian and one could say organic. Large walls of brick apartment buildings with double hung windows. Each having a slight variation in design produced a calm familiar place…in which FLW plopped a spiral. Genius but only genius because the other buildings provided a backdrop. Humans cannot live in a state of constant stimulation nor can we live in a constant state of depravation. Similar to the 80/20 rule, people want most of their environment to be both organic and familiar with an exhilarating surprise as a rare treat to break the monotony.

#3 Comment By BillWAF On March 16, 2018 @ 10:51 pm

Isn’t the simple reason that there is no Nobel prize for architecture because Alfred Nobel did not create one. Remember, there are many people who refuse to call the Nobel Prize in Economics a Nobel Prize because Nobel did not create it.

#4 Comment By karsten On March 17, 2018 @ 12:58 pm

“It is true that the prize tends to lean toward architects who embrace classical forms…”

Why, even in this relatively neutral article, is a statement like the above given as a kind of guilty admission, suggesting that it needs to be excused? It indicates a “but” coming, an excuse — in the case, that excuse for the award’s classical inclination being:

“…but perhaps its most overlooked virtue is its emphasis on creating vibrant places.”

No such excuse is necessary. “Embracing classical forms,” is a virtue in and of itself, whether it “creates vibrant places” or not. At least an embrace of classical forms means that the prize will celebrate building projects that are not deliberately ugly or oppressively functional — which is the case with just about every other building project in the world these days.

If the awarded projects go beyond merely “embracing classical forms” and are even more historicist, ornamented, and opulently aesthetic, then so much the better. But these days, at least the bare minimum requirement of “embracing classical forms” would prevent the ongoing uglification of every city in the Western world via modernism, postmodernism, brutalism, minimalism, and every other degenerate -ism that has been inflicted on the West since 1945.

#5 Comment By Dennis Tuchler On March 17, 2018 @ 6:30 pm

Prince Charles’s much maligned complaints about new British architecture seem relevant here.

#6 Comment By ex_ottoyuhr On March 18, 2018 @ 5:05 pm

Thanks for this article! I’ll keep an eye on the Dreihaus Prize, and I’m delighted to see high-quality public housing going up. Everyone, even the poor, deserves beautiful surroundings, and I’m old-fashioned enough to think that beauty can inspire moral goodness — or at least that ugliness of surroundings breeds ugliness of soul.

@Here Am I:
Urban design also includes understanding what makes traditional built environments tick — and sometimes replicating them from whole cloth. If you’re not familiar with Poundbury, look into it; there’s also the Nordostpolder in the Netherlands, where the Dutch built new towns and villages in traditional styles in the late 20th century, giving the impression that the region had been inhabited for hundreds of years instead of being newly risen from the waves.

#7 Comment By Hrant On March 19, 2018 @ 6:46 am

I was absolutely delighted by both the article and the comments. Thank you.

#8 Comment By John Henry On March 19, 2018 @ 8:06 am

Like there is red state and blue state politics the realm of contemporary architecture has bifurcated – many years ago – into acceptable (socialist International Style) Modernism vs. (antiquated traditional) Classicism. Modern (Post Modern, Decon, etc.) architecture is the unquestionable way to do things and has been consecrated thus since the Universities here were overwhelmed by the European imported Modernists after the world wars. The Machine Age was one of expediency whose tenets and methods became a philosophy and touted as the implicit and unquestionable system of architecture even though the raison d’etre had passed. There was a Kristallnacht moment when all the teachings and reference books of the Beaux Arts was relegated to the dusty basements of prominent colleges of architecture never to see the light of day again.
There is no doubt that the artistic left views Modern design as the political left sees Democratic principles. There is absolutely no room for classical design or conservative thinking in this day and age. Only one university offers a nearly full curriculum in classical architecture. Classical practitioners are ridiculed, ignored, and termed antiquated zealots who do not embrace the present technologies, etc.
In the political realm the right is winning at the moment. This is not so in the high circles of art; classicism has lost and subsequent generations cannot regain the light without succinct instruction. Yes, the few programs dedicated to awarding the waning numbers of classical-minded architects are rarely mentioned by the leftist media and critics. And the general public is conditioned to accept the latest marvels of modernist thinking while retreating at the end of the day to their traditional houses, not understanding what has happened. The leftist media in both the political and architectural worlds has overwhelmed us all by constantly portraying Modernism — and similarly –Democrat principles as irrefutably ‘correct’ and everything else anathema.

#9 Comment By Brian M On March 20, 2018 @ 12:21 pm

Jay-zuss. Even in the responses to a very well-written article (and I am sympathetic to classical architecture), the political posturing and virtue signaling dominates. Lefties are not the only perpetrators, folks.

#10 Comment By John Henry On March 21, 2018 @ 11:23 am

RE: Brian M
Think about it… which political side would modernism be most embraced? It was a practical matter to rebuild Europe quickly using the machine. But this mass production technique turned into a philosophy, a movement. Its exponents glorified it. It economically housed the poor. It sheltered the masses. Then when concrete and steel could work for high-density speculative construction modern building technology allowed high rise construction — to the developer’s delight–it meant quick and cheap erection, high profits, and low maintenance. So yes the ‘right’ has profited greatly. And they are culpable ‘users’. But only the leftist art intelligentsia/media continues to bash classicism and leaves it out of their awards programs. As for “New Urbanism”, Charles got it better than Duany. We are still struggling to make old urbanism work economically and to achieve a believable fabric.

#11 Comment By Brian M On March 21, 2018 @ 9:14 pm

John Henry: I can’t even disagree with many of your specific points here. (I found “From Bauhaus to Our House” hilarious). I guess I was doing a bit of tone policing? Mea culpa.

#12 Comment By polistra On March 28, 2018 @ 10:02 am

Trendsetters don’t need awards. They’ve already got billions in government contracts to build horrible crap.

Trendbreakers could use some awards.

Architects who follow experimentally proved techniques to build quietly harmonious houses that stand up to snow and wind without lots of maintenance. Cape Cods in snowy places, bungalows in sunny places.