Martha Thorne on architecture during SHARE Architects webinar: “More than any other profession, architecture can link together the physical, natural and digital worlds”

In the upcoming March, arch. Martha Thorne will step down from her current position as Executive Director of the Pritzker Architecture Prize.

In the last 15 years, her position with the foundation has been highly commended and staid at the roots of important award nominations that will continue to inspire and shape the international architectural field. arch. Martha Thorne will remain an advisor to the Prize through the 2021 ceremony to oversee the transition.

Academic, curator, editor, and author, arch. Martha Thorne will continue her expansive role as Dean of IE School of Architecture and Design, Spain. Prior to joining IE University, she was Associate Curator of the Department of Architecture at The Art Institute of Chicago.

With a main interest in cities in evolution and changes in the role of the architect, arch. Martha Thorne participated earlier this year in the SHARE Architects online event which revolved around the query of the future of architecture. On the question of “Architecture-what role in the future?” arch. Martha Thorne approached the subject from an evolutive perspective that connected the dots between history – present – future. In conjunction with the ideas expressed, the afterwards session of Q&A opened up a series of thought-provoking views through which architecture is presented at the crossing of three dimensions.

Martha Thorne: I thought they were incredible ideas, certainly thought-provoking and can lead to lots of debate. Again, to share architects, thank you so much for the invitation. I’ve entitled my short presentation today, Architecture: What Role in the Future? I want to just talk a couple of minutes about prizes, the profession and education.

It’s like so many questions that we have. We really don’t know what the future will hold. This is some lesson that we’re learning, because of COVID-19. The challenges of COVID-19 have affected each and every one of us and have called into question our understanding of day to day life, what is normal, what we can expect and what we can rely on.

Certainly, the scale and the impact and the speed with which this pandemic has spread throughout the world would reflect an extreme situation. It is tempting to talk about architecture in relation to COVID-19, but I’d like to argue that the evolution of architecture has been going on for a long time, certainly decades, and perhaps even more than that, maybe even centuries.

When we look at the pressures being exerted on architecture today, they are quite different. I’d like to mention technology and the rapid change of the digital world, globalization, urbanism, and the rise of urbanism and also the onset of shared economies. Today, I’d like to address the question of architecture and what role for the future, as I mentioned, based on prices because of my role at the Pritzker prize for about the last 15 years.

The profession, because I’ve had the privilege of following architects and their work from around the world for many, many years. Finally, in terms of education, where I have my day job and my heart right now. I’m having trouble changing the– I will double click on the screen. Okay, there. Excuse me.

The Pritzker Architecture Prize founded in 1979, has had the same mission since its inception more than 40 years ago. The idea is to honour a living architect or architects through built work. In other words, as evidenced by buildings and spaces that have been constructed, the qualities of excellence in architecture on one hand and contribution to humanity on the other.

While over the years, the prize has always had the same two goals, the independent jury interprets these in the way it sees fit each year. Now prices in general, if we look around the world, prizes in general, we see more and more architectural awards being established.

For example, there are many, many awards related to countries, related to foundations. Also, today we see a rise in specific purpose awards, awards for sustainability, awards to women. I think one of the biggest changes that we can see in prices throughout the world, is the idea of rewarding new inventions, not so much looking at an individual, not so much trying to recognize an architect or architects, but looking at the outcome and rewarding new ideas, rewarding inventions, regardless of who has created them.

Now, the Pritzker Prize when it was established back in 1979, and if we look at the citations that the jury wrote, we can see that they gave awards often to individual architects. They mentioned such things as their talent, their leadership, the quantity and quality of buildings that they had created. I think this was one direction clearly at the beginning which also reflects the context and the society in which they exist.

It was normal that Phillip Johnson, Frank Gehry or Renzo Piano would be honoured as star architects. I do think over the years, we have seen an evolution in the Pritzker Prize, and I think it will probably continue in the future. For example, when Glenn Murcutt won the prize in 2002, there was great emphasis on the sustainable qualities of his works, their integration within the landscape, their sensitivity to the local context and climate.

Others more recently recognized service to humanity in the forefront. For example, Shigeru Ban, we know of his extensive work in disaster relief shelters around the world, or Alejandro Aravena in 2016, who created the concept of half a house, realizing that shelter is much more than just a roof over one’s head but is a source of security. It’s the possibility of opening up doors to future investment.

It’s directly linked to a family’s economic, social and physical well-being within a community. Most recently in 2020, we’ve seen two architects, Shelley McNamara, and Yvonne Farrell, from Ireland who has been rewarded with the Pritzker Prize.

I think that if we look back over the years of the Pritzker, in recent years, we will see more variety in the outlooks and approaches of the architects who received the awards. I’m particularly pleased when there’s an element of the collaborative nature of the practice. The fact that the structure of the office can propose an alternative to the mainstream or when the architects who are rewarded, see the built environment in a much broader or holistic way.

Clearly, service to humanity and excellence in architecture can take many different paths. I think that this is the way of the future. Now, if we look to the profession, there have been enormous pressures put on the profession in recent years.

Clearly, technology has changed the way we approach architecture, anything from design to our presentations to clients, to how we look at building materials, the construction process, the chain of value between natural resources and the building components. It even has invaded the financing of buildings. FinTech is a popular word that many of us use.

Urbanization has presented challenges, not only for architects but for many people. How do we make humane environments that are dense? How do we make new cities and revamp old cities in a way that responds to current, but also future needs? Let’s not forget about global warming and sustainability. These are directly linked to our physical environment, as well as our natural environment.

The construction industry is one industry, which is particularly notorious for waste. It’s particularly notorious for not responding to the needs of the environment and not responding to the needs of the inhabitants. Then finally, one other aspect of the profession where I see there is a need for change has to do with the structure of the profession.

Often, we have architectural offices that are small, they work in an isolated way. We’re still looking for the clients to support us, to give us jobs whether public or private and we don’t always have time to do research, to create knowledge and then to share it.

As I look to the profession, my hope is that we’ll expand the role of architects to go way beyond the idea of architectural design or the small office where they become an author of a project for a particular client.

I hope that we can see larger multidisciplinary teams and structures that are collaborative or maybe a consortium of offices that come together for different projects when needed. I hope there’s also a renewed effort for our professional associations to create and share knowledge, not just defend the status quo and the norms or the accreditation procedures of architects.

Of course, if we want to change the profession and we hope we can change the profession, education has a large role to play. I live this every day in my life, as Dean at IE School of Architecture and Design. We’re a private institution based in Madrid, yet our student and faculty population come from over 100 countries throughout the world.

I feel the challenges almost every day about preparing students for an uncertain future. Many of us who studied architecture were taught by teachers who simply followed the way they had been taught, who their teachers had followed the way that their masters before them had taught them. Clearly today, we need different skills, we need different ways of understanding the profession and we need different and more varied roles for the future.

Of course, I’m a great believer that we still need some of the traditional tools, whether it’s books, screwdrivers, or drills. We need to use our hands as well as our minds but as we look to the future, I’m reminded of this World Economic Forum discussion about the top skills that are needed in the future.

One thing that has given me great hope about this is that many of the top 10 skills are ones that are intrinsically in the process of architecture and design. As we look to things in the future and especially in the face of COVID-19, I would say let’s keep the best of architectural education.

For example, that process has the ability to bring together lots of information to analyze complex situations, to imagine alternative futures with a constant process of criticism and feedback. Let’s keep the best of studio culture of having students and teachers learn from each other, of being able to look over the shoulder of one another to see what someone else is doing, not for the purpose of copying but for the purpose of understanding.

I also think the collaborative method, as we’ve seen in the expansion of the Pritzker Prize to two and three winners at a time, the belief that many people together or several people together can create a more positive outcome than an individual on his or her own is an important way to go.

Finally, linking to that is the question of diversity, not only diversity in roles but diversity in backgrounds, diversity in gender, diversity in ages and outlook. With COVID-19 I think we have a special challenge, and I think more than ever architects are needed.

This has to do with my belief that architects, more than any other profession, can link together the physical, natural and digital worlds. Clearly, we need those three together if we hope to face our current situation of COVID-19 and the other uncertain futures that may be waiting for us. Thank you very much.

Davide Macullo: Hi, Martha. We are something quite interesting right now that was born in recent years. These are the appearance of foundations that work with architects and universities, like the Norman Foster Foundation, which is quite interesting actually what they are doing right now, I think they’re in Madrid as well.

I’ve seen and I’ve followed them because they are investigating a lot, maybe they don’t have that much appearance in the public, which I think. The public needs architects.

The debate that you raised up could be easily shared with the public because at the end of the day, everybody, every citizen is looking for his own space to live within.

The topic of the architect as you mentioned, we have the privilege as well to link a lot of aspects of our life, if not all the aspects of our life together with the technology and the system that will come in the future.

There could be a very nice question from the public, to say, “How can my house or my building be built by robots through artificial intelligence?” These kinds of topics that can make the people more involved in the profession of art, in building our own environment.

Of course, everybody has to work and has to deal with what we can. We are working in a small valley, but we are bringing all the best artists in the world in this small valley. They love to put their energy to build up another future in the valley.

We are going to be the crocodile 30 meters long with 32 artists that work together to design a land art that becomes a brand new space. We are doing a lot of effort because we are allowed by the politicians of this valley to work with them in the population.

We are really working hard, wishing that this could be an example of sharing with citizens about our thoughts and not to keep our thoughts just between us. How can we spread?

Martha Thorne: Davide, I think you made two points that I wholeheartedly agree with you. The first one, when you talked about the public, doesn’t always really understand what architects do and you mentioned engaging more the public.

I think that’s a key element. I think that without going into why it’s like that, there are historical reasons, it’s how architects see themselves, how the development of the profession that the designer is was good, the developer is bad.

There’s a lot of reasons that there’s a misunderstanding between the public and the architecture profession. I know perhaps it happened in the rest of Europe as in 2008 with the crisis, in Spain architects were blamed for the crisis. Perhaps in part, they did have some responsibility but they were blamed much more than they should have been.

I think that the architecture profession has to somehow engage more with the public, more as Melike said, with other professions, they have to not worry about the definition as an artist or the sole author, they have to see themselves more as part of the collective of citizens but with very special methods and very special ways of approaching problems.

I think that architects need to be much more entrepreneurial, not only to work with foundations. As a matter of fact, Elena Foster and I had an email just yesterday together. They have to engage also with industry, schools with other schools, schools with private practitioners to find those areas where maybe a client doesn’t exist, but maybe a good idea can find the client or find the public budget to be implemented, and now with COVID-19, more than ever.

I think that’s one thing. I think the second point you made about being examples. I think it’s beautiful to have a village with art, but thank you so much for saying that’s not the final goal. It’s one goal, but a second goal is to be an example for other places.

To share that knowledge, to share that experience, so others can benefit from what you’ve done there. Because if your only goal is to have a little village in Switzerland, it’s not enough. I thank you for making it a broader goal.

Davide Macullo: Martha, one thing that I really enjoy about what we have to be, it’s a very humble project, but as well as ambitious. We are influencing a lot of the children that grow up in the village. All the villagers, all the citizens, you know what they talk about for three years in the restaurants? Art, architecture, environment, and this is amazing work.

Architectural and art, contemporary art with those big names, they came off the table of having a beer together and talking with Daniel Buren, big galleries and all together gathering, like– Now with social distancing, but physical social distancing, but not cast social distancing.

It’s quite interesting. This is a model that could be in the cities as well. Cities are a group of small villages at the end of the day. If you live in Seoul, at the end of the day you leave with the neighbours as well. He was living there and you met with the neighbours and you live with them. It’s not that much different, it’s just higher.

Martha Thorne: Exactly. It was interesting, a comment in the debate before if you’ll allow me. I thought it was really interesting talking about density, but there was one thing that bothered me about that because although the broad measure of density is people per square kilometre, there’s also the time factor.

If the density changes throughout the day in different places of the city because of different uses and different times. I think I’m a great lover and a great believer in cities. As a matter of fact, my own educational institution was hoping to inhabit a 36-storey tower in fall which now will not happen as they thought.

On the other hand, I think physical space and public space that was mentioned before that we need more is a very powerful idea. Yes, we need public space, lots of it, but we also need to change our schedules, we need to change our understanding of where we work. We don’t have to travel as much so that we can walk and ride our bicycles or our motorcycles or scooters.

I also think that we have to see as I’m seeing now the city of Madrid as adults, we can go out from 6:00 to 10:00 in the morning. At six o’clock in the morning, the streets are not full, but there are people in the street which never happened before.

We’re using our spaces throughout the day, which means it’s much more efficient, we’re taking better care of our public spaces, but we should also do it for our buildings. We shouldn’t leave a house empty or a building empties 14 hours a day.

Leave the offices empty or shopping centres empty 14 hours a day. We have to learn how to use our limited resources, whether it’s buildings or public space in a much more rational and a much more diverse way than we’ve been doing in the past.

Emil Ivanescu: In shortage of time, I will ask you one last question, then we will go with the attendance questions. You talked about, price, profession and education. About the profession, you said that the profession as it is now, it has to change.

I definitely agree that these traditional studios that we are used to working in, are not functioning well with the reality outside. My question is, what do you think, does the education because I think that you’ve mentioned the topic that education also has to change.

In what way do you think education should change? Mostly what’s your opinion? What is the role of education? Is it only to educate students or to have a larger participation in public life and promoting architecture?

Martha Thorne: That’s a really difficult question.

Emil Ivanescu: I know.

Martha Thorne: I think if we’re talking about changing architecture, education and to limit it to that, I think that there has always been the idea from accreditation boards and from the profession, that schools of architecture should train architects to be professionals. Intrinsically, that is a very rigid concept because people tend to want people in the future to be like them.

We see these in juries, we see this in boards, we see this in doctoral dissertation panels. The closer that a subject is to the judges, the more comfortable it is for the judges. Our structure of education and accreditation doesn’t want to change.

I think that in architecture schools, clearly, we have to educate students about their responsibilities of the profession. They’re the ones that are going to be impacting the built environment. They have to understand concepts of safety, of sustainability, of history, criticism, they have to understand that.

I think the problem with our education is we’re telling or through the accreditation process we’re saying, “Study all of this and then become this type of architect, this professional.” If you’re a design architect with your own studio, then you’re way up here. If you’re a sustainability consultant or if you’re a teacher, or if you’re a writer, or if you’re maybe not even interested in that, then somehow you don’t make the grade.

I think it’s a balance between the discipline of architecture, which is extremely serious, extremely important, and the education for broader roles. That’s what I tried to mention. These ideas of critical thinking, of embracing technology, not learning technology, but understanding it to modify it, to see other opportunities. How do we collaborate? How are we more entrepreneurial?

Those are the things I think are lacking. In my school is the daughter of a business school. We can talk about the economic climate, we can talk about demand, about things like that. I’m wondering how many schools of architecture talk about the context, whether it’s economic or the demographic, or things like that. I think we need to allow for multiple outlets of our students.

Andreea Movila: Thank you for your intervention. If I may add something to the topic. As I listened to you, I recalled the book of Yuval Noah Harari, the 21 lessons for the 21st century. Then the main thesis of his book is that the challenge that we will face in the 21st century will be to face not exploitation, like in the 20 century when workers were exploited in industries and in business, but irrelevance because of robotics, because of automatization, because of artificial intelligence.

Related to education, how in your school do you tackle this matter and relevance in the profession that, and how architects are trained to tackle this matter?

Martha Thorne: Yes, again, as I said before, I think it’s the design process. We all like to say, it depends on the questions you ask so asking the right question. It’s not concentrating on the final product alone, but the inquiry first, being able to explain why something is needed, justifying or explaining why you’ve taken a certain approach to a part of the physical environment, explaining the impacts.

I’m not so worried about technology. I think if architects embrace technology, it can get rid of a lot of our wasted time. It can help in analysis, it can help in safety and construction sites, it can do so much for us and then free up your time to do what architects really do best because AI, it only can interpret what we give it. Therefore we use complexities and connecting the dots that seem very different, very disparate is a real human quality.

I think again, it’s being critical thinkers, having a broad culture, understanding architecture and in a deep way, but not being married to one goal in terms of the profession, to be able to jump around to different jobs or professions, depending on what’s needed in the 21st century.

Andreea Movila: Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

Martha Thorne: Thank you.

Emil Ivanescu: You said something interesting about the professional association. We are a professional organization and so on. How do you– You said something interesting and I forget to write down what you said. Okay, please, what do you think?

Martha Thorne: You’re asking me? I think professional organizations, they need to transform themselves as well and we’ve seen this if you look at the AIA, or IBA, even here in Madrid, in Spain, their professional association, it’s not needed to give licenses for building, it’s not needed to collect funds for architects, it has to do something else.

I think professional associations, more than anybody should take the lead. They should look to the future and try to provide knowledge that’s needed by architects in the future, the place for creating and sharing knowledge across geographies.

Just things like you’re doing with the webinar, I think is one example of a great thing. I also think that they should be pushing education, to also expand its mission and I think that professional associations to be fundamental in helping the public understand, breaking down the silo and helping the public feel that architects, politicians, the public, industry, we’re all on the same team and how can we do that?

Emil Ivanescu: Thank you very much.