NEW YORK – If “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown”, David Chipperfield is feeling somewhat uncomfortable about having been awarded architecture’s highest honour, the Pritzker Prize.
That is not because he is ungrateful. “It’s nice to be recognised,” said the 69-year-old British architect in a telephone interview from Spain.
It is because he has long thought that “architecture is more important than architects” and believes that “we’re facing two existential crises – social inequality and climate collapse”.
Those priorities are partly why the Pritzker board selected Chipperfield as its 2023 laureate.
“He has in every case skilfully chosen the tools that are instrumental to the project, instead of those that might celebrate only the architect as artist,” said the jury in its citation, which was announced on Tuesday. “Such an approach explains how it is that a gifted architect can sometimes almost disappear.”
Chipperfield is known for merging elegant, modern spaces with historic buildings.
In 2013, he completed a new gallery addition to the Saint Louis Art Museum in the United States, a polished concrete-and-glass counterpart to the Beaux‐Arts museum designed by American architect Cass Gilbert for the 1904 World’s Fair.
The prize called out Chipperfield’s renovation of Germany’s Neues Museum in Berlin – including saved elements of the building damaged in World War II – for its “discernment between preservation, reconstruction and addition”.
The citation also praised his restoration of the 16th-century Procuratie Vecchie in Venice, a beloved landmark on St Mark’s Square in the Italian city, which “called upon traditional craftsmen to revive original frescoes, terrazzo and pastellone flooring and plasterworks, uncovering layers of history, while incorporating local artisan and building techniques to produce modern correlative interventions, such as a vertical circulation”.
In an interview, Chipperfield sounded palpably frustrated about the slow pace of reckoning with sustainability.
“It’s not about solar panels and insulating windows, but about making fundamental changes,” he said. “All of our actions have to be measured, not in terms of economics, but in terms of their social and environmental impact.”
Part of what animates Chipperfield is pervasive income inequality.
“I come from a generation of architects who believed housing was a right, and we’ve abandoned that,” he said. “It should be a civil right to have housing, to have a good physical environment. That shouldn’t be a privilege of only rich people. We can’t just leave parts of society behind.”
The London-born Chipperfield came from modest circumstances, raised on a countryside farm in Devon, in south-western England, surrounded by barns and outbuildings.
His father, who started as an upholsterer, moved the family to the farm when David Chipperfield was four; everyone worked on the land.
“I never felt any sense of entitlement,” Chipperfield said.
After graduating from the Kingston School of Art in 1976 and the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London in 1980, Chipperfield worked under architects Douglas Stephen, Norman Foster and Richard Rogers before founding his own firm in 1985. It later added offices in Berlin, Shanghai, Milan and Santiago de Compostela, Spain.
Rogers – who designed the Pompidou Centre in Paris with Italian architect Renzo Piano – was a particularly strong influence, “not just as an architect, but as someone who expanded the technical requirements of architecture into the cultural and humanistic”, said Chipperfield. “I’m extremely grateful for the inspiration he gave me.”
Chipperfield’s first public building, the River & Rowing Museum in Henley-on-Thames, Britain – featuring clerestory and pitched roofs inspired by river boathouses – led to a long career of public and private commissions.
His projects include the BBC Scotland headquarters in an abandoned Glasgow shipbuilding site; six crystalline volumes overlooking the sea for the Turner Contemporary gallery in Margate, Britain; and Museo Jumex, raised on 14 columns and a plinth in Mexico City.
Chipperfield has also done his share of master plans, such as one completed in 2018 for the Royal Academy of Arts in London, designing a modern concrete bridge to unite the Burlington House on Piccadilly and Burlington Gardens, the former Senate house.
In February, his firm was chosen for the renovation of the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Greece, a neoclassical pile designed by German-born architects Ludwig Lange and Ernst Ziller between 1866 and 1874.
Chipperfield’s much-debated plan extends the existing building to the street and includes a subterranean addition and a roof garden.
The Association of Greek Architects protested its exclusion from the architectural competition, and Greek renovation experts have objected to the scale of the new entrance, saying it will eclipse the original 19th-century building.
Chipperfield responded to the criticism by saying that change always comes at a cost. He said: “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.” NYTIMES