If “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” David Chipperfield is feeling somewhat uncomfortable about having been awarded architecture’s highest honor, the Pritzker Prize.
That is not because he’s ungrateful — “it’s nice to be recognized,” Chipperfield, the 69-year-old British architect, said in a telephone interview from Spain. It is because he has long thought that “architecture is more important than architects,” and because he 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 skillfully chosen the tools that are instrumental to the project instead of those that might only celebrate the architect as artist,” the jury said in its citation, 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 St. Louis Art Museum, a polished concrete-and-glass counterpart to the Beaux‐Arts museum designed by Cass Gilbert for the 1904 World’s Fair.
The prize called out his renovation of the Neues Museum in Berlin (2009) — including saved elements of the World War II-damaged building — for its “discernment between preservation, reconstruction and addition.”
(“With it Berlin has one of the finest public buildings in Europe,” Michael Kimmelman wrote in The New York Times, describing the undertaking as “the world’s biggest-ever Humpty Dumpty project.”)
The citation also praised Chipperfield’s restoration of the 16th-century Procuratie Vecchie in Venice (2022), a beloved landmark on St. Mark’s Square, 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,” he said, “but about making fundamental changes.”
“All of our actions have to be measured, not in terms of economics,” he added, “but in terms of their social and environmental impact.”
As an individual architect, Chipperfield said, he can only do so much to further progress, given that he gets hired to fulfill the wishes of a client. But he did say his cohort has an important role to play in helping educate the next generation on such issues and in pushing clients toward socially responsible practices.
“It’s not always our fault — if nobody builds social housing we can’t go out there and build it ourselves,” he said. “But as a profession we have not contributed at the level at which we should collectively.”
In an effort to have his architecture contribute to the civic good, Chipperfield designed his 2006 America’s Cup building in Valencia, Spain, not only as a temporary hospitality venue for teams and sponsors but also as public space, with retail and a deck offering views of the canal and city.
Part of what animates Chipperfield is pervasive income inequality. “I come from a generation of architects that 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,” he continued. “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 southwestern England, surrounded by barns and outbuildings. His father, who started as an upholsterer, moved the family to the farm when David was 4; 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 the 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 with Renzo Piano designed the Pompidou Center in Paris — 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,” Chipperfield said. “I’m extremely grateful for the inspiration he gave me.”
Chipperfield’s first public building, the River & Rowing Museum in Henley-on-Thames (1989-1997) — featuring clerestory and pitched roofs inspired by river boathouses — led to a long career of public and private commissions.
His projects have included the BBC Scotland headquarters in an abandoned Glasgow shipbuilding site (2007); six crystalline volumes overlooking the sea for the Turner Contemporary gallery in Margate (2011); and Museo Jumex, raised on 14 columns and a plinth in Mexico City (2013).
“The three-story building is a plain, compact block of light travertine, unornamented apart from a saw-tooth crest on top,” he wrote. “It’s a no-nonsense, no-ego structure that seems to look inward rather than outward.”
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 (1868) and Burlington Gardens, the former Senate house (1998).
A showroom for the designer Issey Miyake in 1985 led Chipperfield to spend years working in Japan, a place he said had a profound influence on his values and aesthetic.
“The Japanese seem to make small things into big things — normal aspects of daily life into significant acts,” the architect said. “That struck a chord with me.”
He also developed a powerful connection to Galicia, Spain. In 2017, he established the Fundación RIA, a nonprofit there that is focused on the development and protection of the local economy. Chipperfield and his family have long had a house in Corrubedo, a Galician village on Spain’s northwest coast.
“It’s unmediated, it’s unaspirational,” Chipperfield said of the area. “I’m not particularly attracted by the spectacular and the novel and the self-promoting. I’m attracted to things with innate and substantial qualities.”
Even so, Chipperfield has established himself as a brand name architect who often tops the list of major competitions. He was knighted in 2010.
Last month, his firm was chosen for the renovation of the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, a neoclassical pile designed by 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: “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.”
Chipperfield paid such a price in losing what promised to be one his most high-profile commissions: the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new wing for Modern and contemporary art, for which he was selected in 2015. After postponing the project, the Met switched gears, announcing last year that the Mexican architect Frida Escobedo would design the wing instead.
In an interview, Chipperfield said he was blindsided, having heard in advance neither from the Met’s director, Max Hollein, nor any of the trustees. “It was one of the most deft exercises I’ve ever seen to get rid of an architect without firing them,” Chipperfield said.
(Asked about this, the museum said it had reached out to Chipperfield before making its public statement.)
What Chipperfield remains most exercised about these days, however, is what he sees as an unrestrained free market, undirected investment, a reactive planning process and how our culture fosters consumerism.
“Finding beauty in normality seems to me a profound position and something very modern and very different from what our contemporary society is doing, which is to make us hungry for novelty,” he said. “The system is out there to make us dissatisfied. I believe we will look back on this period with some confusion.”
At the same time, Chipperfield said, he is not despairing. “I haven’t lost my confidence in architecture itself,” he said. “We make a physically better world, we make a generally better world. I have always held on to that.”