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You Get What You Pay For

Jul 05, 2018 12:09PM ● Published by Kathleen Maris

By John Temple Ligon

Architecture is the mother of the arts, but until fairly recently, the mother couldn’t find her children. Help came from Jay Pritzker and his wife. The Pritzker family in Chicago, the city best known as a museum of modern architecture, pulled together its Hyatt Foundation and named its first annual recipient of the Pritzker Prize, 1979, architecture’s equivalent to the Nobel Prize. The award went to then-73-year-old Philip Johnson, best known for his Glass House, 1949, and his master plan of Lincoln Center, 1964. Johnson died in 2005.

For my money, I’d pick Houston’s Pennzoil Building, 1975, as Johnson’s best work. Also, Johnson will always be known for his interiors job at New York’s Seagram Building, home of the Four Seasons Restaurant, 1959. The restaurant was too successful and had to move to allow the building’s owner to collect higher rent.

The Pritzker is organized to recognize the world’s best working architect, and the prize is given for the built works, not the theories or the unbuilt designs or the books.

As a worldwide event, the naming of the recipient can bring out the obscure. Last year’s winner was a collaboration of three in the Spanish architecture firm RCR Arquitectes: Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigem, and Ramon Vilalta.

This year’s winner is Indian Balkrishna V. Doshi, whom I met in a Rice professor’s office in downtown Houston in the summer of 1977. Our host was Alan Taniguchi, former dean at Texas and former dean at Rice. Taniguchi was a ROTC scholarship student in architecture at Berkeley in 1942 when FDR told Taniguchi and his parents to get on the bus for the ride to the Japanese-American concentration camp in the Rio Grande Valley. But that’s a whole other opinion piece about a sad situation coming together in wartime.

Doshi grew up in a caste system, so he and Taniguchi could quietly reflect on their experiences with rank inequalities. 

Never heard of the Pritzker Prize? Here is the list of the first 10 Pritzker Prize winners:

1979 Philip Johnson (USA)
1980 Luis Barragan (Mexico)
1981 James Stirling (UK)
1982 Kevin Roche (USA)
1983 I. M. Pei (USA)
1984 Richard Meier (USA)
1985 Hans Hollein (Austria)
1986 Gottfried Bohm (Germany)
1987 Kenzo Tange (Japan)
1988 Oscar Niemeyer (Brazil) and Gordon Bunshaft (USA)

Just about everybody’s favorite three architects for the Twentieth Century—Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and Frank Lloyd Wright—were born too soon. Again, the annual selection for the world’s best living architect began in 1979.

The first woman to make the list was in 2004, Zaha Hadid, now deceased.

There is no Pritzker Prize recipient practicing architecture anywhere near here.

The rest of the world has been a bit too fashionable in that “starchitects” were quite the rage for the past several decades. The Pritzker Prize had a lot to do with that. Name recognition has meant almost too much in architect selection. With last year’s Pritzker Prize going to the three unknowns at RCR (initials standing for the architects’ three first names), the New York Times declared the “end to the era of the celebrity architect.”

On the other hand, there is nothing wrong in hiring one of the best architects in the world. They may cost a little more, but all architects tend to chase roughly the same percentage-of-construction-cost fee structures. In other words, in many cases the world’s most highly rated can cost just a little more than the people around the corner. If they fail to score the design commission, the people around the corner can still be in the running for the construction documentation and management of the contract for construction. The locals can do fine.

Still, the starchitect’s heightened fee must be justified. That premium price brings with it early leasing and occupancy responding to the recognition and reputation of the name architect.

The people around the corner fighting back can come up with all kinds of connections and criteria that wins the day for the locals,  while the world’s best gets passed by.

The Columbia Museum of Art negotiated with Charles Gwathmey, one of the New York Five, if you know the book. Gwathmey never was awarded the Pritzker Prize, but he had plenty of world recognition all the same. He designed the addition to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum. Word got around Columbia about Gwathmey’s refusal to cut his fees to match that of the eventual architect of the Columbia Museum of Art, S&W of Columbia.

The early stages of the State Museum and the forerunner to the Koger Center included serious discussions with eventual Pritzker winner I. M. Pei for a cultural complex between Gervais and Senate, near where the law school ended up. SCETV headquarters and studios were part of the planning.

The thought leader in the Post-Modern school of thinking, eventual Pritzker winner Robert Venturi, was engaged by USC’s Princeton-educated architect Dave Rinker for the Koger Center at the final site along Assembly. Venturi’s wife and partner in architecture, Denise Scott Brown, was planning to work with her husband on the organization of the Vista. The whole world would have been watching.

But it was not to be. GMK had the inside track—wired, as it were, with the good but adventuresome Dr. Holderman.

One way to import name architects is to find the money first for the premium fee. Darla Moore reached into her own pockets to hire Rafael Viñoly, the architect for the business school. As a world-class architect, Viñoly is continuously under consideration, I imagine, as the next recipient of the Pritzker Prize. The Hyatt Foundation’s selection committee is likely to cite the Moore Business School when and if Viñoly gets his recognition.

Thank you, Ms. Moore.
Viewpoints, Enterprise