Buildings don’t come into being without a client and his or her aspirations, or without marketing appraisal, without a budget and the whole tedious steps of competetive tendering, value engineering, and all the rest. Because construction is so deeply involved with the market and its various mechanisms, it might be naive to expect an architecture „critical“ of the conditions of its emergence within the scope of an award dedicated exclusively to built buildings. It might be foolish to still expect works that question the status quo of our culture, such as the all-engrossing presence of commercialism and the culture of the spectacle, or that address transparently the ubiquitous precondition of a mediated awareness with its own economy of attention. But then again – it might be the only appropriate thing to do.
For me there are three coexisting sets of criteria for judging an outstanding piece of architecture in this competition: there are ﬁrst the programmatic ideas as such, the activities that are being enabled through an architectural intervention and their effect on the community; there has got to be something that gives an unexpected quality, something that enriches – like, for example, the establishment of a largely undetermined exhibition room for contemporary art as an extension and reinvention of public space. Or the provision of an urban infrastructure, not just to improve mobility in an environmentally responsible way, but also to establish a spatial, aesthetic and atmospheric framework that will sustain a whole city for generations. Or, something like a social focus for one of those synthetic communities located in Euroland somewhere between politics, market forces, airports and motorways.
Of course, this quality of programmatic intelligence is largely dependent on the collaboration or even the leadership of a client. It is difﬁcult for an architect to design a client’s brief without his or her approval; but – inversely – it is difﬁcult for a client to establish a programme successfully without an appropriate space. Hence the second criterion has to do with architectural craft, the making of spaces in response to a programmatic idea. Has this architecture used its power to turn an everyday routine into a memorable activity, to give a banal event a degree of grace? Has this architecture opened up the ﬁeld of possibilities? Has it used its repertoire of suggestion, ambiguity and promise, which can turn a useful place into a liberating experience as well? This is where architects really do have some possibilities of their own, as it is entirely up to their skill of integration and powers of invention to turn (for example) a bus-stop into a sensual environment of quasi-natural spatiality, or an everyday civic institution into a stylishly graceful place that will evoke curiosity and provoke response.
It takes something like parents to turn a building into a being, and the making of buildings may well be likened to the education of a child. Ideas might be highly subjective at birth, but as they grow up they (just like humans) must be integrated into a collective context without losing their individuality. The third criterion is concerned with the competence of the realisation of an architectural idea. I do believe that the care taken to construct a place is somehow equivalent to the civic spirit with which it is imbued.
Of course there are different conditions within which architecture is being produced. Looking at the selection of architectural works, and witnessing the jury deliberations of this award, it became very clear to me that there are still large differences among the member states of the European community as concerns the basic attitude towards architects and the actual process of building. There is a spectrum ranging from „Old“ to „New Europe“, from an attitude of architecture as an element of civic pride (with all of its institutionalised air) to more or less abandonment of the built environment to private market forces. However, as opposed to the political rhetoric from which the term is borrowed, the boundaries between old and new are not always synonymous with national borders, but run through the middle of most European societies.
Thus architects are challenged to decide where they stand: do they – increasingly forced to perform as any other business – just go with the ﬂow and accept the logic of the marketplace, or is there enough courage to hold on to the old-fashioned idea of the architect as an agent of a common good?
If they choose the latter, they face adversity: the public doesn’t expect much from architects anymore, as failed experiments conducted in the name of the same common good during the 1960s and 1970s destroyed a lot of trust in their abilities.
In response to the threat of marginalisation, the profession has been busy trying to reinvent itself. It was years ago that Rem Koolhaas drew the analogy of the architect as a surfer who – as there is no point in trying to stop the wave of commercialism – should at least exploit its energy for his or her own performance.
But is there a cleverer way to glamourise our own paralysis? And where does this truism leave responsible architects today? Do they just have to get used to the role of the lonely cowboy (or Don Quixote) who takes it upon him- or herself to single-handedly try and „change the world“?
The shortlist of the prize conﬁrms this suspicion to some degree, as it seems to testify to quite a number of lonely cowboys. But then this „cowboy movement“ has produced considerable results. There are quite a few works that manage to stand for a collective quality and an intelligent culture.
Maybe it is time to ask how these efforts (which are largely the result of high personal risks and individual sacriﬁces) can be safeguarded and nurtured; and how urbane architecture can be rescued from its self-inﬂicted cultural exile.
The answer to this must surely lie in a another kind of joint marketing effort. Maybe the Mies van der Rohe Prize itself could aptly be described as a critical piece of architecture: a strong network that supports enlightened clientship, that rewards exceptional architectural effort and performance (particularly within the realm of the everyday), that communicates in the wider cultural ﬁeld, and that encourages dialogue and raises support across the countries of the European Union and the rest of the world.
Contribution for the jury documenation of the Mies van der Rohe Award, 2003. Published in Sauerbruch Hutton. Archive. Baden: Lars Müller Publishers, 2006