People who care about architecture and its promise of a civilized life will be annoyed, if not bored, by the announcement last week that the winner of this year's Pritzker Prize is the Mexican artist-architect Luis Barragan.
The Pritzkers are the family who own the Hyatt Hotel chain. The family's annual $100,000 architecture prize was launched last year with all the contrivance of a great cultural event.
Its purpose, we were told, is to encourage increased "awareness of the way people perceive and interact with their surrounding." Sir Kenneth Clark was engaged on behalf of civilization to give the award his blessing. The Pritzker Prize, it was said, is for architecture what the Nobel Prize is for peace, medicine, chemistry, physics and literature.
The Pritzker, in short, is to call attention to the importance of bringing designed order and beauty into our chaotic habitat, the importance of making modern life more livable for all of us.
An award of this caliber -- in contrast to the old boys club back-slapping, called Honor Awards, of the American Institute of Architects -- should mark our changing standards of excellence. It should show young architects what to aspire to.
This is why the Pritzkers appointed a jury which is without doubt today's Ultimate Art Authority. Its members are J. Carter Brown, director of the National Gallery of Art; Sir Kenneth Clark (Lord Clark of Saltwood), the art historian; Arata Isozaki, architect and critic; J. Irving Miller, head of Cummins Engine and the most enlightened patron of architecture in our time, and Cesar Pelli, dean of Yale's trendy architecture school.
These jurors are assisted by Carleton Smith, the impresario of the show, and Arthur Drexer, who is in charge of architecture and design at New York's Museum of Modern Art.
This year the jury was joined by last year's winner -- Philip Johnson.
Johnson, I thought, was an excellent choice. He introduced International Style architecture in this country and still sticks to its classic simplicity. sBut while others use this style as a polemic against tradition, Johnson manages to reconcile it with history, bringing good architectural design back into the mainstream of our culture.
This is important. And this, I hope, is the trend. Abstract architecture, i.e. glass geometrics or concrete acrobatics without foundation in human civilization, is widely considered a failure. It is architecture only for architecture's sake.
There is a growing conviction in the architecture schools and among young architects that architecture is not an esoteric art but a social art.
This year, alas, the Pritzker jury does not reinforce this conviction. The model, the winner, the man to look up to, it tells us, is Luis Barragan, "the artist among architects."
I find that reactionary.
Barragan, to be sure, is a highly sophisticated artist -- a great "decorator of exterior spaces," as someone has called him. Working somewhat in the manner of Isamu Noguchi, he has designed exquisitely refined gardens, fountains and courtyards. Except for devotees of New York's Museum of Modern Art, which exhibited photographs of his work in 1976, he is hardly known in this country.
"We are honoring Luis Barragan for his commitment to architecture as a sublime act of the poetic imagination," explained Jay A. Pritzker, the president of the Hyatt Foundation, on behalf of the jury.
"He has created gardens, plazas and fountains of haunting beauty -- metaphysical landscapes. A stoical acceptance of solitude as man's fate permeates his work. The garden is the myth of the Beginning and the chapel of the End. For Barragan, architecture is the form man gives to his life between both extremes," Pritzker said.
"Sublime poetry," for God's sake. Let's do something about those mechanical failures! I am afraid this kind of pretentious babble has done more even than "the acts of poetic imagination" themselves to create a shocking gulf between low-brow popular culture and high-brow, abstract elite culture, which, in turn, creates unlivable cities.
Barragan's foremost accomplishment is the gardens of El Pedregal, a romantic desert of lava rocks in the fashionable suburbs of Mexico City. Some 30 years ago, the artist was able to acquire 750 acres of the rockscape with its fertile cracks filled with lush moss, ferns and bushes. He subdivided the property and designed private gardens for expensive new villas. The gardens feature lawns, pools, fountains and brooks, but most of all the luxury of exclusive privacy, protected by high stone walls.
Barragan's most admired fountain stands in the country at Los Clubes (The Clubs), also near Mexico City. It consists of large stone slabs, set in a pool, supporting a simple aqueduct that ends in a splash. In its "less-is-more" simplicity, it is reminiscent of Mies van der Rohe's famous Barcelona Pavilion.
Barragan's architectural work, notably his own house as well as a convent, on the other hand, is reminiscent of the work of Le Corbusier with whom Barragan worked in the early 1930s. The Mexican's special touch is the use of natural materials -- rough cut old wood, tile, ceramics and glass chunks set in mortar.
Jay Pritzker, I dare say, is not likely to ask Barragan to design his next hotel. Pritzker knows, as well as you and I, that metaphysical hotels, no matter how haunting their beauty, are not likely to attract many customers or work very well. The time has come for generally appealing acts of practical imagination -- not frozen music.
Perhaps this is a new demand on architecture. Borromino or Bernini or Christopher Wren, it is true, gave us sublime poetry and contributed nothing to public housing.
But then, the common people of Renaissance Rome or 18th-century London had their carpenters and masons and did not need architects to build them housing that may not have been sanitary, but was inevitably livable and beautiful.
Today the human habitat has become a machinery that must be designed. We need good designers.
We also need innovation, experiment, artistic daring, new forms of architectural poetry, if you will. I would be very happy if the second Pritzker Prize had gone to a young innovative architect, showing us a plausible new vision.
Barragan belongs to the Modern avant-garde, which has been marching in place for some 50 years now, forgetting what it is "avant" of. The troops behind have long ago deserted.
Next year, perhaps, the Pritzker jury can find them a leader.