Visual Arts

Pritzker prize for architecture to be bestowed on late German in Miami Beach

Frei Paul Otto, who died earlier this year, will posthumously receive the 2015 Pritzker Prize for Architecture during a ceremony at the New World Center on Miami Beach in May, 2015.
Frei Paul Otto, who died earlier this year, will posthumously receive the 2015 Pritzker Prize for Architecture during a ceremony at the New World Center on Miami Beach in May, 2015. picture alliance / Michael Dick

Miami Beach becomes ground zero for world architecture as the city plays host to the 38th annual ceremony for the Pritzker Prize, often referred to as the Nobel Prize for architects. This year’s winner is Frei Otto, visionary German pioneer in lightweight tensile structures that transcend everyday engineering.

In March, shortly after learning that he’d won the prize, Otto, 89, died. “His loss will be felt wherever the art of architecture is practiced the world over, for he was a universal citizen,” said Lord Peter Palumbo, chair of the Pritzker jury.

The award ceremony will take place Friday at the New World Center on 17th Street in Miami Beach, and Otto’s daughter, Christine Otto-Kanstinger, an architect in her own right, will accept the posthumous prize. Several past laureates will also be in attendance, including Richard Rogers (who won in 2007 and was a member of this year’s jury), Zaha Hadid (2004 laureate), Thom Mayne (2005 laureate) and Glenn Murcutt (2002 laureate). The event is sponsored by the Hyatt Foundation, and besides a bronze medallion, the laureate receives a cash prize of $100,000.

The Pritzker Committee always looks for an “architecturally significant site” at which to hold the ceremony — last year, it took place at the newly restored Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam — and committee members felt that Miami Beach made a perfect setting for the 2015 Pritzker, given the city’s centennial celebration as well as its status as a hotbed of new architecture. Indeed, 10 former Pritzker laureates have designed one or more buildings in the area.

Almost all award programs, by their very nature of selection and exclusion, are controversial, and the Pritzker has had its fair share of controversy, sometimes verging into thorny issues of authorship vs. partnership and who really deserves credit in a profession that is defined as much by team effort and collaboration as it is by a single talent. There have been questionable choices and glaring omissions. Steven Holl, David Chipperfield, Wolf Prix and Kengo Kuma are some of the names that are regularly mentioned as deserving but are still overlooked.

The Pritzker’s most glaring imbalance, however, continues to be the fact that 38 men have been inducted while only two women have made it into this exclusive club. Hadid won outright in 2004, and Kazuyo Sejima shared the award with her partner Ryue Nishizawa in 2010. There was some indignation in 2012 when Chinese architect Wang Shu won the prize yet his wife and longtime design collaborator, Lu Wneyu, was not acknowledged. There has also been lingering resentment since Robert Venturi won the prize in 1991 while wife and design partner Denise Scott Brown was ignored. In this case the omission seemed all the more poignant for the fact that her name is so prominent in the firm’s title: Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates. (When Herzog & de Meuron won in 2001, the committee didn’t single out one or the other partner. They both received a medal.)

In 2013, a group called Women in Design launched a petition to have Scott Brown retroactively recognized. To date there are close to 20,000 signatories, including prominent architects like Venturi himself, who noted: “Denise is my inspiring and equal partner,” while Rem Koolhaas called it an “embarrassing injustice.” Scott Brown herself said: “They owe me not a Pritzker Prize but a Pritzker inclusion ceremony. Let’s salute the notion of joint creativity,” which seems fair enough given her intimate involvement with Venturi’s best-known works, both books and buildings. The committee has, so far, refused to bow to pressure, a non-action that may only further inflame the public’s mistrust of a profession it perceives as being aloof and arrogant. It also helps to perpetuate the myth of a singular design genius, something like Howard Roarke in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, a character famously portrayed by Gary Cooper in the Hollywood adaptation of Rand’s novel.

The notion of a cabal of white men — dressed in spectacles and bowties, creating “heroic” phallic symbols — was shaped in good part by Philip Johnson, who not only received the first Pritzker Prize (1979), but was said to have held sway over founder Jay Pritzker and his award committee for many years thereafter. Johnson’s Miami-Dade Cultural Plaza (1980) on West Flagler Street is proof enough that not all Pritzkers are equally talented. Home to a public library and history museum, the plaza is also the former site of the Miami Museum of Art, an institution that enjoyed a Lazurus-like metamorphosis when it moved out of Johnson’s faux Spanish mission and into the porous galleries of PAMM, a celebratory structure by Herzog & de Meuron that signals a new and more inclusive kind of urban architecture.

On a more positive note, the Pritzker has brought to light the work of important architects. Most people had never heard of Sverre Fehn of Norway (1997), Paulo Mendes de Rocha of Brazil (2006), or Eduardo de Moura of Portugal (2011) before they won the prize, but Pritzker bestowed upon them instant media canonization, a higher profile among the general public and deeper recognition within the international architectural community.

For many years, the selections appeared to favor the idea of form for form’s sake, as if a building can ever be divorced from the social, economic and environmental aspects that surround it, but the committee’s recent choices point to a more environmentally and socially conscious approach: Wang Shu in 2012, Shigeru Ban in 2014, and Otto for this year’s prize all were architects devoted to improving the human condition.

During World War II, Otto was drafted into the German army at 17 and became a prisoner of war in France. He took on the role of camp architect and helped to design temporary shelters with whatever materials were at hand. He would carry this hands-on sense of invention over into his postwar career. After completing his architectural studies and opening an office in Berlin he went on to found the Institute for Lightweight Structures at the University of Stuttgart in 1967.

Like Buckminster Fuller, his counterpart in North America, Otto was more interested in natural forms and patterns of growth — bird wings, soap bubbles, nests, spiderwebs — than conventional architectural sources, and he began experimenting with new technologies, flexible materials and tent-like structures, pushing the parameters of what architecture could be.

His early tensile structures were lightweight, filled with utopian promise, and suggested a more fluid, less hierarchical approach to human space.

“Frei stands for Freedom, as free and as liberating as a bird in flight, swooping and soaring in elegant and joyful arcs, unrestrained by the dogma of the past,” said Lord Palumbo. For a garden exhibition in Kassel, Germany (1955), there was a cantilevered structure that resembled the wings of a giant butterfly, while he created a mesh of interwoven cables for the German Pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal. A minimum of material was employed to cover maximum square footage, as in the soaring roof he designed for the 1972 Olympics in Munich, or an undulating scrim for the Mannheim Garden Festival of 1975.

One of his most memorable projects was a glowing cocoon-like structure designed in collaboration with Japanese architect Shigeru Ban (2014 Pritzker Laureate) for the Japan Pavilion at Expo 2000 in Hannover, Germany.

Other local projects by Pritzker winners include Miami Tower by I.M. Pei (1983 laureate), one of the most recognizable buildings downtown, featured in the opening of Miami Vice. Originally built for CenTrust Savings & Loan in 1987, the multitiered curving facade looms 47 stories over the Miami River and can be recognized at night with its colorful lighting display. Frank Gehry was laureate in 1989, and in comparison to his more flamboyant gestures — such as the recently completed Louis-Vuitton Foundation in Paris — his design for the 100,641-square-foot New World Center, venue for this year’s ceremony, was positively Calvinist in sensibility, an exercise in humility and restraint, with its 7,000-square-foot projection wall on the eastern facade, and only the smallest of flourishes over the main entry. As you move inside the three-story atrium, however, the space begins to stretch upward and vibrate with restless, climbing forms in white, but even these are relatively muted in deference to the programmatic needs of the institution.

Koolhaas, the 2001 laureate, designed Faena Forum on the beach as an homage to Konstantin Melnikov’s rotunda-like house in Moscow, and also choreographed a series of slender glass towers for Park Grove in Coconut Grove. Both projects are unfinished, as is Hadid’s One Thousand Museum on Biscayne Boulevard, but her Digital-Baroque tower has already left a deep psychological imprint on the city’s imaginary skyline. Hadid’s parking structure near Collins Park features spiraling entry ramps and cantilevered decks that, when complete, will challenge 1111 Lincoln Road as being Miami’s sexiest, most sculptural parking structure.

Richard Meier, the 1984 laureate, designed the new Surf Club-Four Seasons at 90th Street and Collins Avenue, where 12-story waves of glass will, when complete, undulate toward the beach as if to challenge the sea’s own translucency, while dwarfing what’s left of the original 1929 Mediterranean-style clubhouse by Russell Pancoast. Renzo Piano, the 1998 laureate, is architect of the oddly fussy Whitney Museum that just opened in lower Manhattan, but for Miami he has pared back all excess in the Valium-shaped luxury tower that is now being built on the former beachfront site of the Biltmore Terrace Hotel (at 87th and Collins), a 1951 confection originally designed by Morris Lapidus and Albert Anis.

Alastair Gordon is an award-winning critic and author who has written regularly for the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. He is a Distinguished Fellow at the FIU College of Architecture + The Arts.

Panel discussion

“Does Architecture Make a City?” A panel discussion with four Pritzker laureates, including Zaha Hadid, Thom Mayne, Glenn Murcutt and Richard Rogers, will take place at 10 a.m. Saturday at the De La Cruz Collection, 23 NE 41st St., in the Design District. The panel will be moderated by architecture critic Paul Goldberger, and is open to the public. To reserve your seat, go to