Building for the Past: The Underlying Senility of the Pritzker Prize

Yesterday, while you were standing in line to buy your Powerball tickets, Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena was named the winner of this year’s Pritzker Prize, which is (allegedly) the most prestigious award in international architecture. Aravena was praised by the awards committee with the kind of fawning that only social engineers can appreciate. “Innovative and inspiring, he shows how architecture at its best can improve people’s lives,” gushed the chairman of The Hyatt Foundation, which awards the prize.

Let us consider each of these categorizations in turn.

What, precisely, is innovative about Aravena’s designs? There is nothing here which we have not seen, loathed, and torn down many times before. Aravena’s work is substantively and thematically indistinct from the oppressive concrete and steel monstrosities of the previous century, collectively but incorrectly often referred to as “Brutalism”, which have scarred cities and university campuses from Boston to Oxford for decades.

Take a look at Aravena’s Innovation Center for the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile in Santiago, for example. I.M. Pei was building giant electrical outlets like this, such as the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University, back in the 1970’s. In fact, here in the Nation’s Capital, we managed to tear down Pei’s similarly awful Third Church of Christ, Scientist just under two years ago.

We could also examine Aravena’s so-called Siamese Towers”, on the same university campus in Santiago. They differ little conceptually from the previous work of numerous modern architects who engaged in this sort of visual tease on a comparatively more impressive scale. Philip Johnson’s leaning glass towers of the Puerta de Europa, for example, have loomed over the Paseo de la Castellana in Madrid for two decades now.

Having dismissed the notion that Aravena’s work is innovative, what, then, is inspiring about it?

Ah for now, you see, we have come to the heart of the matter. Awarding an international prize to an otherwise unremarkable copyist from the developing world comes from the desire for SJW’s from the developed world with too much money and too little taste to sponsor projects which alleviate their inner guilt for remaining hypocritically wealthy in their own lifestyles, while still espousing left-wing ideals. For you see among other activities, Aravena builds “social housing” – i.e., housing projects.

Aravena’s Villa Verde complex, lauded by the prize committee, consists of 484 houses built for the workers of a Chilean forestry company. You would be forgiven for thinking that the architect forgot to finish building them. Each structure features a yawning gap on the right hand side, with only support trusses crossing the void.

The idea for this particular social experiment is to allow the workers to purchase their homes at a relatively low cost of around $20-40,000. Over time, the purchaser can finish building the rest of the house themselves. This, presumably, is the inspiring aspect of Aravena’s work; it is also the same social engineering nonsense which brought us slum housing estates all over the world.

Raise your hand along with me if you believe that, twenty years from now, most of these houses will still be in an unfinished state, with the exposed trusses failing due to the elements, insect/animal damage, vandalism, and so forth. It is difficult to imagine why, if one eventually had the wherewithal to spend another $40,000 to complete the missing half of one’s house, that one would want to continue to live in a box of communal party walls clad in cement board.

The international architectural establishment, indeed much like the contemporary art establishment, has not been interested in concepts such as beauty or universal truth for quite some time. It is also not particularly interested in encouraging projects that are built to last, or that are genuinely innovative. Rather, they have become the elderly bourgeoisie whom they deplore, groping in the darkness to recapture a now-faded and distant era of youth and excitement when anything seemed possible.

There is an underlying senility in the applause of international committees for work such as this, impotent and lacking in any kind of excitement as it is, other than for those who stand to profit from it. Yet as long as the egos of those who continue to commission and award prizes for buildings which only they love are satisfied, we are doomed to see only more of them. The lessons of the previous century’s pile of failed architectural and social experiments have clearly gone unheeded.


Innovation Center, Pontificial Universidad Católica de Chile

Gargoyles Over Manhattan: A Skyscraper Like You’ve Never Seen Before

Skyscrapers are pretty boring.

Once you get past the Art Deco period, urban towers tend to get rather ho-hum. Even though they cost a fortune to build, most skyscrapers always strike me as looking rather cheap, banal, and infinitely interchangeable. If you could build the same thing in Detroit as in Dubai, who really cares what starchitect’s name you attach to it?

It wasn’t always this way of course, nor does it have to continue to be so, as architect Mark Foster Gage recognizes in his proposed tower for 41 West 57th Street, just south of Central Park in Manhattan. In his plans Gage, who is an Assistant Dean at the Yale School of Architecture, presents what would become a major New York City architectural landmark, both referencing the past and looking to the future. Illustration and video renderings of the project, which some are calling the “Gargoyle Tower”, can be seen on his firm’s website.

It is exciting to look at a contemporary building design which has so much richness to it, particularly as compared to most of its surrounding neighbors. The incorporation of significant, numerous sculptural elements into the structure has not been seen on this scale in Manhattan since the 1930’s. The fact that there is so much differentiation between the floors of the building provides far greater interest externally; the individualized layouts of the apartments along more sculptural lines will provide both challenges and rewards for those living in them; the rather Balinese temple-like rooftop observation deck will no doubt have a stupendous view of the city.

Gage’s proposal immediately calls to mind the work of Antoni Gaudí, which of course is why I wanted to share this with my readers. Certain elements of the design and forms are reminiscent of those employed by Gaudí in the Sagrada Familia, La Pedrera, and elsewhere, although without directly copying them. As an aside, this brings to mind the sad story of the skyscraper hotel that Gaudí designed for what is now the site of Freedom Tower in lower Manhattan, but which (sadly) was never built. You can read more about that here.

One must acknowledge that there is a kitchy aspect to Gage’s assemblage of design elements, as admittedly one finds in Gaudí’s work as well. Giant angel wings and cruise ship propellers seem as bizarre on Gage’s design as giant snails and bowls of fruit do on Gaudí’s. Yet the difference between the two lies in the approach to the decoration itself.

Whereas in his work, Gaudí was generally making nationalistic or religious references, Gage admitted in an interview with architecture and design magazine Dezeen that there was no deeper meaning behind the design for this project. While deploring the ubiquitous “glass box” tower, Gage does not attach any significance to the exterior of this project, save for its aesthetics:

“Our primary interest wasn’t symbolism as might have been the case with such sculptural forms a century ago,” said the architect. “Instead we were interested in having high and low resolution areas on the facade, so the building revealed different qualities from different viewing distances – including from the interior,” he added.

Is it fair to compare these two architects? Gaudí was, of course, a deeply Catholic, proud Catalan patriot; his idiosyncratic designs, particularly as he grew older, came more and more to reflect his desire to honor God and his homeland. By contrast Gage is a fashionable, young, and innovative architect, who wants to explore interesting and beautiful designs by using the technology at our disposal.

Perhaps it would make more sense to take Gage as he is. His effort to do something different, yet still familiar, is a tonic to the samey-ness of most contemporary skyscrapers – which haven’t really changed that much since we started building plain, glass Kleenex boxes stood on end in this country over 80 years ago. A skyscraper is, in the end, something which functions independently of its decoration: even the beloved Chrysler Building, covered in sculptural decoration referencing the automobile which paid for its construction, does not depend on its decoration for its function.

Certainly this particular building, if it is ever built, would be a magnificent and unique addition to the Manhattan skyline, not only because it is so different, but precisely because its decoration serves part of its function. One need only consider the way it uses sculpture to provide elements such as outdoor space, for example. And it is, admittedly, very cool: one can imagine Batman and the Joker leaping about it on it, in a yet-to-be-made superhero movie. Yet therein lies the rub: without imbedding some deeper meaning into its programmatic decoration, one does wonder whether, over time, it will come to be viewed as little more than a very expensive bit of set design.

Whether this skyscraper is ever built, it certainly gives us a lot to think about. And like his work or not – I’m still making up my mind – Gage is certainly someone to watch. What do you think of this project? Feel free to leave comments and engage in some discussion below.


Three Upcoming DC Events to Calendar

For those of my readers who are in, or who find themselves in, the Nation’s Capital over the next few weeks, there are three upcoming events that I would like to draw to your attention. All are free and open to the public…and may I hasten to add, this includes the non-Catholic public. Plus, at the first you will have the chance to see me make a mockery of myself in public, which is always a very good thing.

Wednesday, December 9th
6:00 pm
Christmas Poetry in DC
Catholic Information Center
1501 K Street NW
(Metro: McPherson Square)

The Thomas More Society of America is sponsoring its annual “Christmas Poetry in DC” evening at the Catholic Information Center, and I’m honored to have been asked to return once again and give a reading. Over the past few years of participating in this event, I’ve become something like the comic relief portion of the program, but then I’m always happy to poke fun at myself. This is always a fun evening with a great turnout, and a wonderful opportunity to meet people, including some of the readers whom you may recognize from media, law, and so forth.

Sunday, December 13th
7:30 pm
Advent Lessons and Carols
St. Luke’s Ordinariate Community
1315 8th Street NW
(Metro: Mt. Vernon Square/Convention Center)

It’s been several years now since the Episcopalian parish of St. Luke’s came into communion with the Catholic Church via the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, thanks to the efforts of Pope Benedict XVI. Now established at Immaculate Conception Church, located directly behind the DC Convention Center, the community is hosting their annual service of Advent Lessons and Carols with music by Palestrina, Ralph Vaughan-Williams, and François Poulenc, among others. I was fortunate to attend last year, and was impressed (though not surprised) by the beauty and good taste of the music, but also with the magnificence of the Gothic Revival-style church itself, which I had never visited before. It was built between 1864-1865, and has been beautifully restored to its Victorian glory. Even if you are not Catholic, but appreciate fine architecture and sacred music, do plan to attend if you can.

Saturday, December 19th
7:00 pm
Advent Stations
St. Dominic’s Church
630 E Street SW
(Metro: L’Enfant Plaza)

Those who are regular readers know that I am a self-proclaimed fanboy of the Order of Preachers, a.k.a. the Dominicans. We are very fortunate here in DC to have not only the Dominican House of Studies and Priory of the Immaculate Conception, but also the parish of St. Dominic’s, a gorgeous Gothic Revival church built in 1875 and run by the Dominican friars. Chances are if you’ve been on 395 heading to or from Capitol Hill, you’ve seen the huge, stone steeple of St. Dominic’s from the highway. This is the second year in which the friars will be hosting Advent Stations in the church, and you really want to make the time to attend this if you can. The entire service is conducted in a completely darkened church, lit only by quite literally thousands of candles lining the altars, stairs, floors, and held by the attendees. It is really an experience, and the atmosphere is like stepping back a thousand years or more. There will be readings/preaching, as well as superb music, followed by a reception in the church hall afterwards.


Immaculate Conception Church, DC