Our Chairman, Lord Palumbo, last night introduced the award ceremony for the 2016 Pritzker Prize, presented to the Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena at the United Nations in New York. Lord Palumbo’s speech is reproduced below; or you can watch it as delivered live, with an opening tribute to the late Dame Zaha Hadid (speech begins at 6’00)
‘The Arts exist to help us recover the sensation of Life’
This is the first time that I have chosen a title for a speech of this kind – eleven memorable words spanning as many years, years that I liken to the magical flickering images from the camera lens of the pioneering photographer Eadweard Muybridge, providing a succession of seamless, indelible, utterly absorbing, endlessly exhilarating, memories of my time as chairman of the Pritzker Prize, increasing still further, if such a thing is possible, my deep admiration for, and gratitude to, the Pritzker Family; and most especially to Mrs Cindy Pritzker, without whom there would be no Prize, and by the same token no cause to mark the celebrations today of the Thirty-Eighth Annual Award Ceremony to honour the outstandingly talented architect Alejandro Aravena from Santiago, Chile: But also, to Tom Pritzker and his wife, Margot, who have been wise beyond measure at all times, as well as supremely supportive. Indeed I would argue that the global success of the Pritzker Prize from the day of its inception in 1979 to the present, owes much to their unfailing generosity of mind and spirit. Add to that, a jury of exceptional calibre, and an administrative team that operates with all the assurance of a cool, calm, and collected professional mindset, that is a joy to behold; and it is no wonder that the sum of all these parts produces rock-solid foundations that provide a perfect platform of support upon which the lifeblood of the Prize depends, – a lifetime’s achievement in the built environment; a consistently high level of excellence; and a contribution to humanity.
Now then, if these remarks appear to have about them a valedictory ring, that indeed
is the intention, and will remain so as we move forward to consider the intriguing, even inspiring, Account of Two Russians. The first, a Literary critic by the name of Viktor Shklovsky, whom you have already met, albeit indirectly, and, I hope, admired, for it was from the flow of his pen that there emerged the eleven memorable words of the title of this speech, ‘The Arts exist to help us recover the sensation of Life’. His compatriot, the Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, – ranked, incidentally, by Ingmar Bergman, no less, as the world’s greatest maker of films, – posed an equally penetrating and thought-provoking question when he asked ‘Perhaps our capacity, (as artists), to create, is evidence that we ourselves were created in the image and likeness of God?’. Both quotations strike a deep chord for all those, like me who have long held the belief that the artist is the most important member of society, and should be cherished as such, for the good and simple reason that, at its best, Art is the highest achievement of which the human spirit is capable. On that basis, it is only a hop, skip, and a jump to claim that artistic talent at an exalted level, is indeed bestowed by some higher dimension: And that, therefore, Art must be counted as an integral part of life itself, and not as a mere adjunct to living, to be clipped on, and snapped off, like a bow tie, as and when the occasion demands. Adopting that proposition, the perceived wisdom that there exist in life only two certainties, taxation and death, neither of which is particularly palatable, would have added to them a third certainty, namely the power of the Arts to help change the face of humanity for the general good. This is no pipe-dream, since the lessons of history demonstrate over and over again from time immemorial, the way in which the Arts have come to the rescue of peoples from all four corners of the globe in good times and bad, by their ability to transcend Time and physical boundaries, as well as boundaries of race, rank, and creed, invoking in the process a higher dimension that offers an alternative future, boosting morale, and providing reassurance, optimism, and hope: And where better to begin than with the Art of Architecture, the first of the Arts by virtue of its prominence and reach as a shelter for Man, at this Annual Award Ceremony of the Pritzker Prize in the hallowed precinct of the United Nations Headquarters Building in New York City, surely the most appropriate forum imaginable for such an endeavour.
At this point, I would like to change the narrative once more to analyze in a little more detail, the qualities that Aravena brings to bear as an architect against the criteria that I have outlined, – a lifetimes achievement in the built environment: a consistently high level of excellence, and a contribution to humanity. In a still-developing, and hauntingly beautiful country at the very end of the earth’s southern reach, it is to those people who exist in Chile below the poverty line, many of them without a roof over their heads, to whom Aravena has dedicated most of his professional life, his hopes and his dreams, by helping them to recover the sensation of life. And this he has achieved through brilliance of heart, mind and spirit, by acting as designer, innovator, political activist, educator and enabler to fuse the physical, sociological, and economic requirements of the homeless and the dispossessed, with the paucity of funding and the lack of materials available to him, to produce, against all the odds, and as if by a miracle, a symphony of solutions, basic but beautiful, out of a clear, blue sky. And in so doing, he has restored to them a garland of dignity, and a ray of hope and optimism for the future, when all around them seemed lost. There is no doubt that the success of Aravena, and of his team Elemental, stems from his discovery that the lessons learned from the design of social housing on the one hand; and the grand project on the other, inform one another to an extraordinary extent, skills honed in a fierce and relentless focus upon the retention of essentials, whilst discarding and committing the superfluous to oblivion. The miracle of social housing apart, this is best illustrated by Aravena’s Innovation Building in Santiago (below), a remarkable structure by any standards, that won the highly coveted Building of the Year Award for 2015, against stiff competition from some of the world’s leading architects.
In addition to his other qualities, Aravena possesses an unbounded energy that never sleeps, much like the City of New York itself, in fact, but neither is it at all apparent, whether it be as a tireless Visiting Critic at Harvard University: a charismatic teacher through the medium of lectures delivered the world over: as a designer at the coalface of social housing, or large scale projects: as Curator of this year’s Venice Biennale; or the Award to him today as Laureate of the 2016 Pritzker Prize. This concealed well of unbounded energy goes hand-in-hand with an innate modesty and humility: the selflessness of one who gives credit due to him, gladly and with a full heart, to others; a man who dares to dream, as visionaries do, of an architecture that celebrates the human condition, and the human spirit, whilst sublimating the self in the service, and for the good of humanity, pointing the way to a better understanding, tolerance, mutual respect, reconciliation, civilized values, and peace on earth, – the self-same principles, in fact, that guided the founding mission of the Family of the United Nations towards the establishment of an enlightened future, which is why, when invited to summarize the revelation of Aravena, and his work in a few words, I like to quote the last lines of the famous sonnet, ‘On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer’ by the 19th century English poet John Keats. ‘Then felt I like some watcher of the skies, when a new planet swims into his ken; Or like stout Cortez when, with eagle eyes, he stared at the Pacific; and all his men looked at each other with a wild surmise, silent upon a peak in Darien.’
This jury has the same collective feeling of surmise about the work of Aravena and his qualities as a man. We stand in awe, and applaud with admiration his vision for the future. We, too, fall silent as we stare in wonder at the Pacific that laps and caresses the entire coastline of Chile: And finally, we are reminded of a better, more just, more peaceful world of civilized values than the one that we inhabit today. The Pritzker Prize is the very least that can be offered to Alejandro Aravena by way of return.
And now, before I invite Tom Pritzker, as Chairman of the Hyatt Foundation, to present to Alejandro Aravena the Award of the 2016 Pritzker Prize, I would like to introduce you to the individual members of the jury, who I will ask to stand, as I call out their names in alphabetical order.
The distinguished Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States of America, from Washington DC, Stephen Breyer.
The distinguished art historian, writer, architectural curator, commentator, and educator, from Berlin, the Federal Republic of Germany, Kristin Feireiss.
The distinguished architect and 2002 Pritzker Prize Laureate, from Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, Glenn Murcutt. At the end of this Award Ceremony, Glenn will succeed me as Chairman of the Pritzker Prize. He will do it proud. He is a brilliant architect with a beautiful mind; and he is, in addition, the truest, most honourable of men, and the most devoted and stalwart of friends. Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome Glen Murcutt.
The distinguished architect, and 2007 Pritzker Prize Laureate, from London, England, Richard Rogers.
The distinguished architect from Barcelona, Spain, Benedetta Tagliabue.
The distinguished architect and industrialist, and until recently Chairman of the Group that bears his name, from Mumbai, India, Ratan Tata.
And last, but by no means least, the distinguished architect and educator, from Beijing, the People’s Republic of China, Yung Ho Chang.
And now it only remains for me to say thank you: so long: and in deference to our Laureate, – Adios!