The Ordos Prize

            Young Chinese architects are blessed and cursed with an abundance of work. Many of them have burgeoning portfolios of built projects in their 20s, when young architects in the West are still thoroughly in the apprenticing process. But when I visited China last year, I heard the same refrain: While it’s nice to work, they also want a chance to think.

            When  I visited a class of aspiring architects at Nanjing University, they wanted to talk about Kenneth Frampton and regionalism and debate the merits of starchitecture. They wanted time to ponder China’s role in the world, and how the younger generation could steer the country away from building fast and encourage it to build well. They were idealists, but they knew that their likely fate was a life of long hours, cranking out formulaic designs for warehouses and generic housing.

            Announcing the Ordos Prize, a new architecture competition funded by a Chinese billionaire. It is named for the Inner Mongolian city of Ordos, one of China’s astonishing “mushroom” cities that has grown from a population of zero in 2001 to 1.36 million today. Part of the award includes a commission to build a new building, plus $20,000 in award money.

Though not so grand as the Pritzker Prize, or so thorough in its process as the Aga Khan Award for Architecture  (which operates on a three-year cycle and is meant “to encourage architecture that reflects the pluralism that has always characterised Muslim communities”), the Ordos Prize does seemed design to address the malaise of over-worked and under-theorized young architects. It is not limited to Chinese architects, and the nominating committee is thoroughly international: Ben van Berkel, Stefano Boeri, Liz Diller, Jacques Herzog, Thom Mayne, Pierre de Meuron, Enrique Norten, Kazuyo Sejima, Wang Shu and Robert A. M. Stern, according to a press release.

 “Unlike other major prizes that recognize an architect for a significant project or body of work, The Ordos Prize is the first to honor emerging young talent,” says Rem Koolhaas , who heads The Ordos Prize Jury.

  

The prize process is being thrown together rather quickly. A spokeswoman for the award said that nominees are currently coming in, and the jury will meet in July. The award will be presented August 20, 2009. The commission that goes along with the cash award is “still a work in progress,” according to Barbara Sayre Casey, whose public relations firm sent out the announcement. At this point, it’s not clear what the building will be, though it will be built in the city of Ordos. Which already seems to have one of everything.
 
Architecture critics love prizes because they are a lazy man’s way of sorting through a large and confusing field of data. I also think there’s a desire to see something interrupt what seems like an intractable problem in China—the disappointing lack of authenticity and innovation in a country that is building so much new stuff. There are exceptions, of course, and perhaps this prize is one way of locating and promoting them.

 Meanwhile, it’s worth taking note of the larger fact of Ordos, the city-out-of-nowhere that is cashing in on the fossil fuels trade. It is also the site of the Ordos 100 project (funded by the same billionaire, Cai Jiang), a collection of 100 individually designed villas being curated by Herzog and de Meuron. An international array of architects is involved, and according to Sayre Casey, who has just returned from the site, they are actually being built. So far, a half dozen or more are underway. And the city includes a museum, also under construction, designed by the Beijing-based MAD firm, which I visited last year. MAD is a very interesting, ambitious and innovative young company that always manages to find itself in the headlines.

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