Cities & Architecture

The World of Architecture Should Embrace the Avant-Garde, as This Year’s Pritzker Prize Has

For a long time, it has been the same kind of loud, eye-catching architecture that is deemed iconic. Thankfully, that is changing.

Les Cols Restaurant Marquee 2011 Olot, Girona, Spain designed by Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigem and Ramon Vilalta. Credit: Hisao Suzuki

Les Cols Restaurant Marquee 2011 Olot, Girona, Spain designed by Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigem and Ramon Vilalta. Credit: Hisao Suzuki

Encouraging plural perceptions about iconic and avant-garde works of architecture may safeguard the architectural discourse and many contemporary architectural practices from the risk of being influenced by a singular worldview. Magazines and journals of architecture have a critical role to play in this regard. This year’s prestigious Pritzker prize, the Nobel’s equivalent in the field of architecture, upholds the value of collaborative practice and promotes plural world views about the nature of architectural productions. Pictures of Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigem and Ramon Vilalta’s architectural productions reveal a certain calm countenance and sobriety in their work, blended fluently with the natural landscape of a place. The Pritzker recognition bestowed on this team of architects for their beautiful yet subtle work is a welcome relief for a profession which in the recent past has witnessed a celebration of eye-catching, self-referential and startling buildings exclusively as iconic works by the international architectural print media. The singular promotion of such work by the media seems to have adversely impacted potential plural notions about the content and character of iconic works of architecture. If quintessential avant-garde works mark shifts in a discourse, this year’s Pritzker seems to have certainly identified one.

In many ways, Laurie Baker’s work in the Indian subcontinent too qualifies this description. His practice engaged holistically with the climatic, cultural and community context, even as it questioned the disconnect between architect, artefact, building process, place and cultural milieu. Baker’s work was also at once about an affordable aesthetic, much-needed restraint and austerity in a rapidly-depleting resource context. Many of his public buildings, like the India Coffee House, the Centre for Development Studies or the beautiful Loyola Chapel designed with jewels of light, are iconic buildings in their own right. Similarly, Charles Correa’s design of Sabarmati ashram can be considered an iconic statement in the architecture of tranquility. High-density urbanisation is not the only scenario against which a range of practices in diverse contexts are to be ticked off for their relevance and merit. While Maya Lin’s avant-garde landscapes are deeply rooted in the metaphysical, Le Corbusier’s radical housing proposals for Paris qualify the rare distinction of being located in a vision of city building. In as much as Santiago Calatrava’s works are landmarks, so are Glenn Mercut’s in the landscape of the discourse of architecture. Such works are not deliberately tall or horizontal, angular, curvilinear, twisted, skewed or straight. Yet they are brilliant works in their own right and in no way are less potent instruments to have impacted the discourse of architecture. All architectural productions with deep and meaningful content of course enrich the discourse. However, it is a matter of concern when they tend to be guided merely by the pursuit of visual iconicity as the goal, relegating the holistic content that should inform their making.

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The persistence of this paradigm is one of the triggers for the emergence of avant-garde works. The latter, in turn, become the object of criticism and inquiry in a continuous process, which is of course healthy for any discourse. However, as works of architecture get into the realm of print and visual media, they seemingly gain an aura of authenticity which dulls critical perception. This in turn sets in motion the perpetuation of singular world views, consuming what is produced and reproducing the same continuously, building a world of consent and similarity. Such a process will impact architectural productions from being informed by rich diversity of thought and a range of creative possibilities. This stifles the spirit of unrestrained inquiry which should aid the construct of the discipline and its future. Architectural practices that thrive through branding, however radical their works may be, are perhaps the most vulnerable to this self-destructive phenomenon which thwarts innovation. Much to the chagrin of such practices, the critic as an outsider questions this process and may aide in correcting the course or stands the risk of being shouted down.

The need for promoting plural notions about iconic and avant-garde works of architecture is urgent and pertinent. If anything, the responsibility of the architectural print and visual media is to highlight a diverse range of architectural practices and the values that guide their making. Given their reach and impact on emerging practices, and on the student community in particular, the gravity of such responsibility is very high. Magazines and journals of architecture could also dedicate sufficient space and encourage criticism informed by inquiry of the political, cultural and economic context in which architectural productions are located, in contrast to presenting the latter merely as isolated sculptures and impressive images. Though creative work thrives in a space nurtured by freedom, the discourse of architecture with its social responsibility and cultural significance needs to be tempered by unqualified, rigorous, meaningful and persistent criticism to promote diverse worldviews befitting the domain.

P. Venugopal is an architect and urban designer running a studio practice in Hyderabad for over 25 years. He also writes about architecture and cities, besides teaching as visiting faculty in local schools of architecture. He can be reached at tdc_architect@rediffmail.com