Archipelago-townZumtobel: the new Nobel?

A very interesting three-legged event took place in Berlin last week: a press conference, a round-table, and the award ceremony for the 2012 Zumtobel Group award for Sustainability and Humanity in ...

A very interesting three-legged event took place in Berlin last week: a press conference, a round-table, and the award ceremony for the 2012 Zumtobel Group award for Sustainability and Humanity in the Built Environment. The interest lies in the motivation for awarding the prize, which is supposed to honor ‘outstanding solutions in architecture and engineering that make a contribution to enhancing the future quality of life.’ The interest lies in the motivation for awarding the prize, which is supposed to honor ‘outstanding solutions in architecture and engineering that make a contribution to enhancing the future quality of life.’

The phrasing and the goal of the award arguably fall outside the current mainstream and remind one of a similar prize with a similar ambition—The Nobel Prize for Literature and for Peace—whose recipients are often the target of polemics generally fueled by misdirected activities on the part of the West’s so-called free press. Those who are more interested in fact than politics know that Nobel’s last will (easily available on the Nobel Foundation website) shows no ambivalence. ‘The prizes should be distributed to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind.’ The Nobel Prize for Literature is supposed ‘to be bestowed upon a literary work in an ideal direction,’ while the one for Peace is to ‘be awarded to the person that renders the greatest service to the cause of international fraternity, in the suppression or reduction of standing armies, or in the establishment or furtherance of peace.’

Despite Nobel’s testament, the press decided that the prize should go to the most important living author and to whoever had done the most to secure world peace. It is not surprising, therefore, to note that the Pritzker Prize, which is supposed to honor the most important living architects, is often dubbed the equivalent of the ‘Nobel for architecture.’

All of the above forces one to suggest that the Zumtobel award may actually be considered the equivalent of the ‘Nobel for architecture,’ as it is becoming an effective and outstanding platform for a different discourse on the sustainable and the humanitarian, which runs counter to the often current abuse of these terms. The award is given in two categories—The Built Environment / Research and Initiative—making it possible to reward unbuilt projects by unknown, young practices such as the Boston-based MASS Design Group, which was named winner of the first category for its Butaro Hospital in Rwanda or the Paris-based Atelier d’architecture autogérée (AAA), which, after a ‘call for submission’ process, won the second.

As many of the high profile jury members underlined at the press conference and in private dialogue, the two projects were selected, not on the basis of their specific architectural merit but, for the process they had set in motion and for their socio-ecological engagement, which strives at integrating people and nature, (low) tech, and design. This stands out as a strong message in a field such as architecture, which is all too often ‘swallowed up’ by celebrity culture and marketing.

Alfred Bernhard Nobel held 355 different patents, the most famous of which was for dynamite. I am not aware of the number of ‘light patents’ Jürg Zumtobel holds, but it is safe to assume that his interest in the condition of humanity, rather than the vacuous talk about linguistics and miscellaneous bric-a-brac, makes him stand out as his own contemporary version of Alfred Nobel.

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