This year Zaha Hadid won the Pritzker Prize. The award was founded by Jay Pritzker who owned the Hyatt hotel chain - not that the winners of the prize have produced much that looks at all like the buildings which underwrite it. It is given annually to an architect who has, among other things, 'produced consistent and significant contributions to humanity and the built environment'. In the dream days of architectural Modernism, those contributions would have included a grand social vision of planned cities drawing distant inspiration from nice places (Italian hill towns, 18th-century spas) which had escaped the vivid, dismal chaos brought about by modern transport and industry. That chaos is now more often acknowledged than challenged by architects. The self-generated complexity of cities strains the infrastructure of roads, pipes and cables, stretches the language of building regulation and planning law, and throws up petition-signing protest groups at the drop of a computer-generated perspective. It is a situation that promotes sociological analysis and technical, economic and political design decisions. Bespoke architecture is a prestigious garnish on an urban environment in which most new building is off the peg. Most new buildings are smart, clean and nicely detailed. But they do not thrill. The architects of the scattering of showcase projects which manage to get built - new art galleries, the odd parliament building or library - assume a duty, not just a licence, to challenge norms. Designers who can do this will not necessarily have cut their teeth on run-of-the-mill buildings.
LRB 16 December 2004 | PDF Download