David Chipperfield, Architect of Powerful Subtlety, Wins the Pritzker

The architecture industry’s highest honor goes to the British-born designer, who forgoes building flashy icons in favor of poetic spaces that espouse progressive values and exude a “solemn gravitas.”

David Chipperfield, the winner of this year’s Pritzker Prize. Photography via The Hyatt Foundation/The Pritzker Architecture Prize

David Chipperfield is well-attuned to society’s dual crises of climate collapse and social inequality—and the architect’s responsibility to put their ego aside and address them. That partially explains why the British architect was selected as the recipient of this year’s Pritzker Prize, widely regarded as the profession’s most prestigious accolade. 

Often fusing austere, clean-lined spaces with historic buildings, Chipperfield’s approach is a masterclass in striking a poetic balance with subtle power. “His buildings will always stand the test of time because [his] ultimate goal is to serve the greater good,” the jury said in its announcement. “The avoidance of what’s fashionable has allowed him to remain permanent.”

“I think good architecture provides a setting—it’s there and it’s not there,” Chipperfield said. “Like all things that have great meaning, they’re both foreground and background, and I’m not so fascinated by foreground all the time. Architecture is something that can intensify and support and help our rituals and our lives. The experiences in life that I gravitate toward and enjoy the most are when normal things have been made special as opposed to where everything is about the special.”

James Simon Gallery in Berlin, built between the reconstructed Neues Museum and the Spree River. Photography by Simon Menges
The Turner Contemporary in Margate, England. Photography by Simon Menges

That approach has served him well. He received the coveted RIBA Gold Medal in 2010, curated the Venice Architecture Biennale two years later, and has won countless high-profile competitions since establishing his firm. Chief among these is the controversial reconstruction of Berlin’s Neue Museum, which was bombed by the RAF during World War II. A sixteen-year endeavor with the conservation architect Julian Harrap, the revamp eschewed clichés of juxtaposing dated buildings with modern extensions in favor of a more archaeological-minded approach. Upon the project’s completion, in 2009, more than 35,000 Berliners lined up for hours in the cold to experience it. The project enshrined him as a German national hero and remains a career-defining feat. 

Such high-stakes projects seemed unlikely for an early-career Chipperfield, who grew up on a farm in rural England and rebelled against the avant-garde ideas brewing at London’s Architectural Association School of Architecture in the late ‘70s. His formative years were spent working for Douglas Stephen, Norman Foster, and Richard Rogers, whom he cites as a strong influence “not just as an architect, but as someone who expanded the technical requirements of architecture into the cultural and the humanistic,” he told the New York Times. He’d bring those principles to his own firm, which has tackled dozens of public commissions—Turner Contemporary, Museo Jumex, the James Simon Gallery—since launching in 1985.

The Museo Jumex in Mexico City. Photography by Simon Menges
The River & Rowing Museum in Henley-on-Thames, England. Photography by Richard Bryant/Arcaid

Chipperfield’s firm has since expanded to Berlin, Shanghai, and Milan, but these days he prefers the slower pace of Corrubedo, a quaint Galician village on Spain’s northwestern coast. There he launched Fundación RIA, a nonprofit that fosters the local economy. Setting a positive example for the next generation is one of his primary concerns—and he’s frustrated with the industry’s sluggish embrace of sustainability and social responsibility. “Our actions must be measured not in terms of economics, but in social and environmental impact,” he says. “It’s not always our fault—if nobody builds social housing, we can’t go build it ourselves. But as a profession, we haven’t contributed at the level at which we should collectively.” 

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