Architecture today is short on giants. There is no architect today who has the authority of such figures of the relatively recent past as Alvar Aalto, Louis Kahn or Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
But, as the Wizard of Oz might have said, our time has something that earlier time did not have: prizes.
There has been an escalation in the number of prizes given to architects for the work of their entire career. The three architects mentioned above all won the American Institute of Architects' (AIA) Gold Medal, long the highest honor given in the United States. But with the initiation of the Pritzker Prize for architecture in 1979, which carries a $100,000 prize, and the Aga Khan Award, for Islamic architecture, initiated in 1980 and that awarded $100,000 for a lifetime's achievement, the stakes are suddenly higher.
The three winners of these prizes this year represent strong, but completely divergent ideas of what architecture should be. Josep Lluis Sert, the recently announced winner of the AIA's Gold Medal, is a lifelong advocate of using modern technology to help solve social problems. As one of the founders of CIAM, the International Congresses of Modern Architecture, and its president for nine years, the Barcelona-born-and-trained architect was at the center of the struggle to find ways to develop a modern architecture that would provide healthy, efficient environments for the masses.
Sert, who is 79, was professor of architecture and dean of Harvard's Graduate School of Design from 1953 to 1969. His apartment buildings, such as those at Harvard and those on Roosevelt Island in New York, are powerful forms, usually rising assymetrically, in response to views and orientation.
They offer a variety of plans, and probably rank among the most humane high-rises ever built. But they have been almost entirely for the middle class and above, which in international terms means for the very well-off.
Hassan Fathy, 86, who won the Aga Khan Award, argues that the effort of Sert and his colleagues to solve the problems of the poor through high technology is doomed to fail. The Egyptian architect says that high technology prevents people from being able to work together to solve their own problems.
He points to the beautiful, environmentally sensitive mud brick villages of Nubia as examples of what people can do if they have not been told they are unable to solve their own problems. His own attempt to use modern organization to construct such a village near Luxor was very beautiful, but it had serious social and bureaucratic problems and it can hardly be called a success.
He was trained to be able to do modern architecture, but he has followed a radically different course throughout his career, which has been an inspiration to architects who want to preserve traditional architectural forms as well as those who have been overwhelmed by the problem of finding decent places to live that people can afford.
Like Lathy, the Mexican architect Luis Barragan, winner of the 1980 Pritzker Prize, is a master of thick walls and deep shadows, the architecture of the desert. But while Fathy (and Sert, for that matter) has been deeply involved in using architecture to serve people's needs, Barragan's first priority is beauty.
"I believe in 'emotional architecture,'" he has written. "It is very important for humankind that architecture should move by its beauty; if there are many equally valid technical solutions to a problem, the one which offers the user a message of beauty and emotion, that one is architecture."
Barragan's architecture, which is known to me and most others primarily through very beautiful color photographs, is mostly a matter of intersecting planes, flowing and splashing water and "Barragan colors" -- pink, magenta, coral, lemon.
He has worked primarily for the wealthy around Mexico City, and some of his finest compositions are stables for horses, small gardens and single rooms. He has not approached any of the tough problems of building buildings that can pay for themselves or that ordinary people can pay for. But his designs -- minimal, meditative, even mystical -- are exerting a strong influence on many who aspire to work in a less rarefield environment.
Especially in his later buildings near the Mediterranean, Sert echoes some of the same forms of hot-weather architecture both Fathy and Barragan use. Nevertheless, each epitomizes a different starting point to architecture: Sert rationality, Barragan emotion, Fathy tradition.
Each has done arresting work that has proven an inspiration to others. Their contributions are partial truths, aspects of what architecture, at its best, can become.