With the announcement this week that Japanese architect Shigeru Ban had won the 2014 Pritzker Architecture Prize, architecture’s most prestigious award, a question I’ve often thought about has tempted me again: Does architectural lighting need a Pritzker-like prize? Modeled after the Nobel Prize, the Pritzker was established in 1979 by Jay and Cindy Pritzker of Chicago, through their Hyatt Foundation, with the following purpose: “To honor a living architect/s whose built work demonstrates a combination of those qualities of talent, vision, and commitment, which has produced consistent and significant contributions to humanity and the built environment through the art of architecture.” Since its inception, the Pritzker has been awarded 36 times.
The Pritzker plays an important role in the architecture profession. It continues the tradition of the “patron of architecture” and it sets a benchmark for practitioners in establishing a best of the best. But it is by no means a perfect system. For one thing, the program has been severely criticized lately for its failure to recognize female members of the architecture community. (The Denise Scott Brown controversy is a harsh reminder of the lack of parity in the field.)
With the affinity that exists between architecture and lighting, it is often easy to default to trying to construct parallel systems between the two, even where no true parallel exists. And so I wonder: Is lighting doomed to always be the bridesmaid to architecture’s bride? I say: No.
Establishing an award for lighting design that recognizes a living person’s body of work would be a way for the profession to take a step forward as it matures as a design discipline. Although there are many lighting design award programs sponsored by the community’s professional organizations, manufacturers, and publications, most only recognize individual projects. Even fewer recognize particular lighting designers. There really is no singular lighting award program that recognizes a designer’s body of work and cites for the lighting community, as well as for the larger field of architecture and design, that here is a person who serves as a role model and whose work represents excellence.
Look at the model of the Pritzker and how the jury is structured—it fluctuates between five and nine members, each of whom serves for several years to provide continuity and all of whom are “recognized professionals in their own fields of architecture, business, education, publishing, and culture.” The award, thus, seeks to evaluate architecture beyond the profession’s traditional boundaries. Creating such a prize for lighting would move lighting design to a much broader place of discussion—and, in turn, broader recognition. It would be a way for the lighting community to reconcile how it speaks to itself and how it speaks to a wider audience.
Such a prize would also be a way for the lighting design profession to show fellow architects and designers that it takes itself seriously, and that they should too. The profession has its own specific skill set, expertise, and knowledge base, and there is an established precedent of what constitutes good lighting design.
Such a prize would also give a new kind of definition to the lighting community, one that exists on a global scale, and would elevate the profession as a whole. Attaching a $100,000 purse, as the Pritzker does, would only help to convey the level of the profession’s seriousness.
The Pritzker seeks to build “greater public awareness of buildings” and to “inspire greater creativity within the architectural profession.” Doing something similar for lighting would be a good thing.
Elizabeth Donoff, Editor-in-Chief