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There is so much to learn from India, says Pritzker Prize Executive Director Martha Thorne

Martha Thorne.

Martha Thorne.   | Photo Credit: Courtesy IE SCHOOL OF ARCHITECTURE AND DESIGN

The international architecture academic, curator and author talks about the future of building and about the legendary Japanese architect, Arata Isozaki, winning the Pritzker Prize this year.

Arata Isozaki was recognised as a ‘visionary architect’ in the 80s when we were students of architecture. How is his philosophy relevant to our times?

If I were to convey the citation of the Pritzker Prize jury, there is a profound underlying philosophy guiding Isozaki’s work and writings. It is not content with categorisation, but a constant exploration to break the status quo. It is a search for the relevance of architecture and its relationship to society at large. It is both avant-garde and deeply humanistic.

The challenge for countries like India and Japan, with ancient living traditions, has been the confrontation with modernisation and technology. How does the citation recognise this?

Isozaki bridges the spirit of the East and West in a rare way. It is not through visual caricatures but processes of contemplation. He has been engaged at many levels, whether writing, teaching, exhibitions, conferences or diverse projects across the world. He has been an architect actively immersed in this dialogue, absorbing its challenges; not a passive spectator. The jury recognises the value of that contribution.

Isozaki’s generosity in supporting younger architects is exemplary; not only from Japan but from many other countries. He recognised a young radical Zaha Hadid. In the 80s, younger architects in Japan were given a chance to participate in Isozaki’s initiatives. His architecture is a gift to society, both at the level of built work and individual. Even as he searches for theoretical underpinnings, he never forgets the experience of its inhabitants, the local context, and aspirations. When we see his works from the beginning (the museums), they reveal a sensitivity to light, movement, and contemplation.

What message does the Pritzker Prize seek to convey?

The jury looks for a message that has relevance to the moment, the present — on the meaning of architecture and possibilities for the future. The Pritzker Prize is granted for ‘the art of architecture’ and ‘service to humanity’. The jury reinterprets these concepts each year and seeks to communicate important values related to both. What distinguishes Isozaki is that the contribution goes beyond the physical, and architecture has other profound meanings, across diverse cultures. For instance, when Alejandro Aravena won it (2016), there were political and social discussions around the challenges of housing. Last year, B.V. Doshi was recognised for a long career in architecture, education, urbanisation, affordable housing and institution building with a social mission.

There is so much to learn from India, a vast, old country, which is trying to find its way in the 21st century. People sometimes say there is a ‘before’ and an ‘after’ for a person visiting India. I had this feeling. For someone born in the U.S. and living in Europe, the intensity of the feelings one has during the first visit — and mine was to Jaipur — is unexpected. For me, all was amplified in India — history, the energy I felt when walking in the city, the colours, the conversations, food, the kindness of the people.

How do you envision future directions?

I think this is an important moment and has several new directions. Isozaki has an understanding of a global shared reality. He is an international, cosmopolitan figure, yet with an ability to connect to the personal. Globally, there are many big challenges. The world appears to have become smaller on one hand and yet more complex on the other. Jury chair Stephen Breyer talked about the importance of dialogue across cultures — Isozaki as an exemplar of sharing and learning, bridging East and West.

At a time in history when many things divide us, Isozaki’s search for communication and collaboration is something the jury recognised.

How can students of architecture and design address these challenges?

That’s a great question. As dean of a school here in Spain, I confront these issues almost every day. I think Isozaki’s philosophy may convey to students ideas of patience, curiosity, and study. Although we have lots of information on the Internet that can be instantaneously transmitted, this deeper meditation, an understanding of history, culture, philosophy — knowledge that is inherent in architecture — is important. These are the building blocks and we can’t forget them. They make architecture the heart of our society. Otherwise, it risks becoming something banal or flashy. It is a challenge for students to slow down, introspect, observe, and make connections across disciplines.

There is a need to expand the role of an architect. Normally, design architects receive the most recognition. In contrast, architects related to policy, community projects, sustainability or housing often don’t receive recognition. No other profession has such a broad range of knowledge and skills to make multiple contributions to society. We have to expand that definition in our education, bring that awareness into society. The structure of our profession needs questioning since it has implications on the way we practice.

What structural changes could truly recognise the role of women in architecture?

The recognition of women in architecture is a multi-pronged process. On the one hand, our profession needs to change. Architects can get subsumed in practice, leaving no space for family or a life outside work. Most often, women are disadvantaged in this unfair comparison, since they have to look after family and children. So we need to change how we structure our profession from the inside. Offices can do this in a number of ways — flexible hours, humane hiring policies, supportive teams.

The contribution of women architects needs to be recognised. Besides awards, this can be done through various forums like conferences, lectures and competition juries. These public or semi-public events need an equal representation of women, so people gradually realise the significant difference they make to the profession, and to ways of perceiving the world. Maybe it’s time to question these larger issues in architecture in order to engage meaningfully with society.

The writer is an architect, academician and world traveller.

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Printable version | Sep 20, 2020 3:06:58 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/there-is-so-much-to-learn-from-india-says-pritzker-prize-executive-director-martha-thorne/article26545255.ece

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