The Pritzker Party 2020: Hold My Beer (Literally) While I Watch This
I didn’t see it coming. I didn’t see it coming even when Arquitectura Viva reported on the Kingston University building in London and the Grafton girls conquered the summit of my own private Olympus. Because this is a building that consolidates and takes the approach first revealed in the UTEC in Lima onto another level, attaining a timelessness usually enjoyed only by very prestigious male architects. It’s a building immersed in an uncompromising, all-concentrating form of modernity with a voice of its own: but a voice that really is its own, not some silly fake voice of its own that seems authentic but is really as authentic as a 3-dollar bill. It exudes classicism, the expressivity of pure, undiluted construction, historical (not historicistic) homage to that great English architecture of the 1960s, and precision totally devoid of complacency. The conviction born of great sensitivity. It’s all there, in this building.
The Grafton girls have been producing very good work for some time, but what they’re doing now is beginning to defy description. And then they go and win the Pritzker Prize. An expanding studio. A studio that’s growing…. growing in quality, I mean to say. A studio that’s changing and evolving, and for which the sky’s the limit. I mean, dam it all, they’ve already got experience, but what they’re trying to do now is so amazing that they seem to have won the prize with a vision of the future. And yes, that’s what it is. A vision of the future. Because this is what’s coming. This is what has to be vindicated. And so the prize was a foregone conclusion. Obviously, I couldn’t be happier.
OK, I could be a spoilsport and point out that it’s a prize awarded by a foundation made up of hotel owners who saw a niche in the market, went for it, built up its prestige and staked everything on a magnificently executed exercise in communication. Everything – the manoeuvre, the hype, the resulting project – turned out perfectly for them, and here we all are talking about it. That’s the way it is. That’s the way it is in the Pritzker Prize, that’s the way it is in the Oscars (although we deliberately overlook it) and that’s the way it is in the Nobel prizes, even the very technical ones that we never remember but are there precisely to remind us that from time to time prizes are more or less well deserved. So yes, we’ve got retained information and news conferences scheduled for 4 o’clock and Twitter and mentions and debates, and we’re all quivering with excitement at the latest invention. We’re also ready to nit-pick and laugh when required, or go all ironic, or get angry, or remember the good things, or carry out the corresponding sociological analysis of a career that’s now beginning to take on some significance.
This time, the fact is that they couldn’t have done it any better.
Because they put quality first. Because they put the actual building first. Because there’s a track record. Because… just think of what’s still to come. Because there’s no argument about it. It’s here and now. And it’s two women.
Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara were born in Ireland in the 1950s. Telling you what their next campus design will be like, they look as if they’ve just come out of the local pub with a pencil behind their ear. They’re both a little younger than the first generation of women who graduated from university schools of architecture here in Spain. Behind them stand the Su Rogers, the Wendy Fosters, the Georgie Woltons, the Amanda Levetes, and the marvellous Louisa Hutton (excuse the compliment, it’s just that I met her and I thought she was great). And earlier, the real heavyweights: the Jane Drews, Eileen Grays … and ALISON SMITHSON. Written like that, in capital letters. Because Smithson died in 1992, WITH NO PRITZKER PRIZE (also in capital letters!). And Lady Elizabeth Wilbraham, who was born on Saint Valentine’s Day in 1632 and was just as good as any of her male colleagues and yet nobody remembers her. It’s not about awarding prizes to women architects like the Grafton girls, who fully deserve the recognition. It’s about rewriting history, about realizing that these women have always been among us. So this prize, however incontestable and well deserved it may be, is also a gesture in that direction. And that’s the way it should be. We owe it to them. We owe it to ourselves.
A toast to women architects!