What’s the fuss: Behind the Denise Scott Brown campaign for Pritzker recognition

If you’re a casual dabbler in architecture and design pastures, you probably haven’t heard of the Pritzker Prize. If you’re enmeshed within these rarefied fields, you’ve probably resorted to describing the Pritzker as ‘like the Nobel prize for architecture’ [or if dealing with a mathematician, like the Fields medal for architecture, but without the age limit]. In short, it is a $100 000 cash prize and bronze medallion awarded annually since 1979 to living architects who have made substantial and consistent contributions to humanity through architecture. It is a Very Big Deal.

Currently it also has a small public perception problem: the jury (the exact composition of which changes over time) doesn’t appear to like women or collaboration very much (it also skews towards recognising Western Europeans, but that’s a separate post).

This was certainly the case back in 1991, when the jury rather superciliously announced that the prize was for individuals* rather than partnerships or firms, and thus it would be awarding the Pritzker to Robert Venturi. Alone. As though over 22 years of design and writing collaboration with life partner Denise Scott Brown were somehow separate to his success. A strange choice, and not uncontroversial at the time. In the two decades since, Denise Scott Brown has expressed her not unreasonable disappointment at her exclusion on several different occasions and forums.

At a recent (March 2013) Architect’s Journal Women in Architect lunch, Denise Scott Brown made the following comment (through a pre-recorded message):

“They owe me not a Pritzker Prize but a Pritzker inclusion ceremony. Let’s salute the notion of joint creativity”

For whatever reason, this comment has generated a slew of responses. It’s been reported on blogs dezeen, architizer, archinect, artlystarchdaily and Australian feminist site Parlour [disclosure: in addition to my attributed work, I have previously copywritten and sub-edited for Parlour]. It’s seen a supportively titled column from Rory Olcayto in AJ (the paywall prevents me from reading the content in full) and spawned a change.org petition supported by high profile advocates for gender equity such as Jeremy Till.

Despite the trumpeting blog headlines and petition (which I have signed), DSB is not campaigning for or demanding a Pritzker. She’s doing something considerably more radical and dangerous. She’s advocating for an entirely different way of thinking about how authorship and attribution is recognised and celebrated in architecture. Wrapped up in the Pritzker (and architectural culture more broadly) are a truck load of implicit assumptions about authorship and individuality. By calling for an inclusion ceremony rather than a prize, DSB is both nodding to and swerving around the prize and authorship systems. Once again, we’re Learning from Scott Brown… and I, for one, salute her.

For more scholarly unpacking about the ways that both gender and authorship are implicated in Pritzker Prizes and architecture more widely see the following texts by Hilde Heynen (paywalled), Naomi Stead and Denise Scott Brown herself.

Aside on the “pipeline” argument: the median age of Pritzker winners is 61. In 2013, a 61 year old graduate who went straight from school to university would have graduated in 1974. Since the numbers of female students has increased steadily since then, we’d assume to see the number of women winning the Pritzker to increase steadily in coming years. However, I’m expecting to see a shift towards older recipients (2013 winner Toyo Ito is 72) and an extra lag that will be attributed to delays in women’s careers due to children responsibilities before seeing any measurable increase in recognition for women.

*Strangely, the ban on partnerships was not in effect in 2001 (Swiss duo Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron) or in 2010 (Japan’s Kazuyo Sejima and collaborator Ryue Nishizawa, SANAA). But in 2012, it again chose to snub partners who are also wives with the sole recognition of Wang Shu (and not collaborator and wife Lu Wenyu).

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