It's a parking lot. Just a parking lot. With some lights on poles and an attendant booth.
The Mall of the Rockies, designed by American architect Nathan Peterson, just before the mall's completion in 1995. Peterson won the Pritzker Prize, architecture's most prestigious award, on Saturday. (AP photo)


Nathan Peterson Wins Pritzker Prize




              LUCERNE, Switzerland (AP) – Nathan Peterson, whose challenging architectural style marks locations from Florida to Oregon and Iceland to Rio de Janeiro, has been named winner of the Pritzker Prize, architecture's most prestigious award. Peterson, 52, was informed of the award Saturday, and becomes the ninth American architect to win in the contest's thirty year history.

              Many in the international architecture community were surprised by the award, as Peterson's ideas, often highly theoretical, have not often translated into the high profile projects that mark the work of previous Pritzker winners. His refusal to compromise his theoretical beliefs or temper idiosyncratic personal interests, combined with a career that has had its share of scandal, has estranged him from many of his peers and earned him a reputation as a confrontational designer working alone in the architectural avant-garde.

              “I thought he was still in an institution. Was he not institutionalized?” Frank Gehry said upon being notified of Peterson's award.

              Renzo Piano expressed concern for the Pritzker's integrity. “The award is not intended to be given to those who engage in professional versions of adolescent vandalism,” Piano said.

              Responding from Lucerne, where he maintains a residence, Peterson said, “I don't give a fig for the Pritzker. This is just an attempt to co-opt me into the mainstream, media-ready world of the ridiculous ‘starchitects,' whom I embarrass on a regular basis.

              “Two of the people on the jury this year have, at different times in the past, actually spit on me. One of them, and he knows who he is, was stupid enough to start a fistfight with me, which he lost in grand and embarrassing fashion. I'm not going to be tricked into creating some public persona so I can get profiled in the New Yorker .”

              Many see the award as justification for the many years Peterson, an outspoken critic of former Pritzker winners including Gehry, Piano, Rem Koolhaas, and Zaha Hadid, has spent actively fighting the contemporary style and demands of mainstream architecture. The jury cited Peterson's “ability to challenge assumptions of beauty, to deconstruct notions of form and function, and to pursue an uncompromising commitment to artistic statement.

              “Through relentless analysis, confrontation, and sheer energy, Peterson has forged a body of work that has only grown more impressive with time. His designs, which invert expectations through their value of space over matter, penetrate to the core of our principles regarding how humans organize their structures and environments,” the jury wrote.

              Peterson alluded to his popular reputation as a “deconstructive” architect in his statement. “I'm not deconstructive,” he said. “I'm destructive. There's a huge difference between those two things, and it has mainly to do with caring. Caring is something I've never been able to do, and I doubt I'll start any time soon.”

              As a child in rural Montana, Peterson was held accountable for the burning down of storage sheds on three different ranches. None of the owners pressed charges, but when one of them demanded a written apology, the nine-year-old Peterson sent the man a two-word note: “You're welcome.”

              The Pritzker comes with a $100,000 grant, which will be awarded to Peterson on May 30. “I'll accept the thing so I can wear the ridiculous medallion to a discotheque, and I intend to blow the money on liquor and whores,” he said. It's unclear what kind of ceremony the jury will organize should Peterson fail to attend.

              “Wasn't he convicted of sex crimes?” Hadid asked upon hearing of Peterson's selection. “The man's a criminal, yes?”

              Fired from an early teaching job at the University of Wisconsin over charges of sexual harassment, Peterson has alternated between completely ignoring and commenting candidly on the controversies, often lurid, that have dogged his career. At the time of the Wisconsin firing, Peterson was quoted as saying, “There were at least three girls there at the time, so how is it possible that two of them were having a good time and only one felt harassed? Shouldn't the majority rule? I would have unlocked the door if [the accuser] really wanted to put her clothes on and leave, but she didn't use the safe word.”

              Peterson established Lothario, his design firm, the next year. The University of Wisconsin alerted authorities when more than a dozen graduate and undergraduate architecture students dropped out in order to accept employment at Lothario, but no wrongdoing was found. Peterson won his first award four years later, for a highway rest stop composed entirely of intersecting tinted glass panels. The rest stop was destroyed by vandals only three years later, but for the next two decades, Peterson continued to work primarily on local businesses and small public buildings, often lavishing his greatest attentions on restrooms.

              He gained regional notoriety in the early 1980s when, in a contentious divorce trial, Peterson's wife Natalie described their sex life in great detail.

“We hadn't yet been married a year when Nathan told me he trusted me so much that he was willing to have anal sex with me,” Natalie Peterson stated in a trial during which she accused the architect of emotional and physical abuse. “I refused, which he claimed was a sign of mistrust. We argued about it. Eventually, under extreme and constant verbal pressure from Nathan, I consented.”

              Peterson was quoted as having shouted at that moment in the trial, “But ask her if she liked it!” at which point he was removed from the courtroom. Peterson has since refused comment on the divorce.

              As a teen, Peterson attacked and seriously beat his maternal uncle at a family barbecue. Shocked, the family asked for an explanation. “I just wanted to see if I could do it. He's a grown man, so if he let me beat him, it seems to me it's his own fault,” Peterson said. He then demanded a Dr. Pepper and some time alone “to put this event in perspective.”

              It wasn't until the early 1990s that Peterson developed a national profile, again through controversy, when without informing the city of Wischnatau, Wisconsin, he placed only a glass wall between the men's and women's showers in the locker rooms of a largely-glass building he designed for Wischnatau's largest outdoor swimming pool. Through the use of vents and a specialized glass coating Peterson's firm developed especially for the project, the glass wall's surface was designed to become opaque with condensed steam as soon as a shower spigot was turned on in either shower room. Pool users complained that the wall remained translucent in the interval between entering the room and starting the shower, and that nothing prevented other patrons from simply wiping the steam from the glass with their hands, thereby obtaining a clear view of the adjacent showers.

The glass wall between the men's and women's locker room at the Wischnatau, Wisc. City Pool House.
The Wischnatau, Wisc. City Pool House, designed by American architect Nathan Peterson, led to controversy early in his career. (AP photo)

              Peterson refused to alter the structure, claiming he had fulfilled his contractual obligation to create separate men's and women's locker rooms, and pointed out that blueprints for the building had at all times carried an abbreviated notation indicating the wall would be composed of glass. “The building is about vulnerability, the human body, and temptation,” Peterson said at the time. The city of Wischnatau claimed Peterson deliberately confused and misled local officials, and a resulting lawsuit was further complicated when Peterson was arrested and charged with indecent exposure in a public restroom while in town to attend a court proceeding.

              “Apparently, men in Wischnatau can't touch other men in Wischnatau,” Peterson told a local reporter. “And if you're wondering why the men of Wischnatau want to touch each other, look at the women.”

              The locker room lawsuit ended in a settlement that crippled Lothario's finances. The city hired a local contractor to cover the glass wall with traditional tiling, and Peterson's website officially lists the project as “no longer intact.” The indecent exposure charges were dropped.

              Peterson followed the Wischnatau controversy by winning several competitions and commissions in which he began to refine a style so restrained that some critics have suggested it borders on absence. In response to a call for designs for a visitor's center in a woodlands area outside Eugene, Oregon, Peterson's submission consisted of a single panel of clear glass adorned with nothing but the words “No public restrooms” etched in small print in a bottom corner. Though he won the competition, officials changed the panel's phrase to “Welcome to the Natural World” and placed an asphalt parking lot nearby. Peterson claimed the changes destroyed the integrity of the project. When the glass panel was mysteriously shattered only a year later, many suspected Peterson himself of the crime. He has offered no official comment on the destruction of the project other than its listing on his website as, “No longer intact.”

              A similar project for the state of Washington ended in yet another lawsuit when Peterson set a four-room Department of Forestry administration building below ground level and then, upon its completion, covered it with earth, without any visible entrance.

              “The building is about the role of governmental bureaucracy in the administration of natural beauty,” Peterson said during a subsequent court proceeding. “The building was constructed according to plan and is on the agreed site. It's ready for use. And when the state digs their way down to it, could someone please apologize to the receptionist?”

              The state did eventually unearth the building, but claimed it was damaged beyond repair. No one was found inside.

              As a child, Peterson refused, to his mother's great consternation, to eat meat for three straight years. The non-meat phase ended one day when Peterson's mother saw him chase down a neighbor's chicken, wring its neck, and bring it to her with the demand that she prepare it for dinner. When she demanded an explanation of his actions, especially in light of his dietary beliefs, Peterson told his mother, “It looked at me.”

              Peterson underwent yet another messy public divorce in which his second wife claimed she suffered forced transvestitism and sexual abuse at Petersons' hands, and was at times held against her will. A particularly lascivious section of the trial transcript reads, “There was a three week period in which he spoke to me about nothing but anal sex, which I'd refused to have with him. When I tried to leave one evening, I found that all the doors were locked from the outside. Nathan pretended it was the result of a mix-up with a locksmith, but he was walking around naked and erect the entire evening, and finally I just gave in. Once he unlocked the doors the next morning, I left and never went back, though he kept claiming it was all just a misunderstanding.”

              “I've never forced anyone to do anything,” Peterson said in the same trial. “I just seem to bring out the worst in people. I still feel I'll find the right person eventually.”

              Peterson's website lists The Beatles as his favorite band, their hit “All You Need is Love” as his favorite song.

              The settlements from the divorce and the Washington Department of Forestry suit forced Peterson and Lothario to file for personal and corporate bankruptcy, respectively. Financial difficulties didn't stop Peterson from simultaneously creating two new firms, though, which he named FrontDoor and BackDoor. Both firms have thrived.

              FrontDoor earned immediate acclaim for its construction of five Greyhound Bus Station terminals across Iowa and Nebraska, each of them a grouping of boxy, undersized glass buildings Peterson claims were inspired by phone booths. The firm is currently at work constructing a massive wastewater treatment plant built entirely of steel and glass in Rio de Janeiro.

              BackDoor's first major project was the massive “Mall of the Rockies” in Denver, Colorado. In a move recalling the visitor's center in Washington, Peterson placed the entire structure underground, with parking at ground level directly over the mall. Peterson claimed the project would eventually be seen as the first “true late-capitalist structure.”

              “The American citizen consumes to escape reality,” he wrote of the project. “As an increasingly harsh reality requires increasingly extreme consumption, the American mall functions primarily as a locale of obesity. As such, consumers and their malls find comfort in an opportunity to hide their embarrassing girth somewhere beneath the banal utility and damaging behavior that constitute the mundane, the ‘everyday.'”

              Though the finished structure appears from the outside to be nothing but a large concrete parking lot, critics agreed that the project managed to marry utilitarian function with political statement.

              BackDoor has since won commissions to build Schools of Business on three major university campuses, and Peterson has pledged to use the projects to extend the ideas he developed while building the Mall of the Rockies.

              “Everyone clever enough to major in business will have the opportunity to spend the majority of their time underground, drastically reducing their need to mix with the messier liberal elements of campus life,” Peterson said in a recent interview.

              Over the course of two years, while Peterson was in his early teens, a dozen cats disappeared from the neighborhood he lived in. After his family moved across town, five cats disappeared from the new neighborhood. When his father asked him if he knew anything about the missing cats, Peterson responded, “Why would I mess with cats? I don't even like cats.”

              Despite the architectural successes of FrontDoor and BackDoor, Peterson has continued to be pursued by scandal. Various entities have accused Peterson of using his firms to funnel and transfer funds illegally, hide assets, and generally confuse the details of his finances.

Nathan Peterson's "Church" in Duluth Minnesota.
“Church,” one of American architect Nathan Peterson's recent structures, explores “implications inherent in the vacuity of the religious gesture,” according to the architect. (Photo courtesy Church of the Testament, Duluth, Minn.)

              “When he needs to pretend to have access to millions of dollars, he can make it appear that he does, and then when he needs to look broke, he can make it look like he is,” Washington state attorney general Richard Haslip said recently. According to Haslip, Peterson has yet to make payment on his legal settlement with the state.

              “Bitter experience has taught me that access is not the same as ownership,” Peterson responded.

              In Necropolis , Peterson's most recent collection of theoretical essays, he writes that modern architecture's task is “to create habitations for dead people—people who are morally dead, spiritually dead, and actually dead. The world ended some time ago and the possibilities for the human race dissolved, but people are still animate and wandering the landscape, using their cell phones to take low quality pictures of nothing, which they then email to everyone they know. Contemporary architecture is about designing buildings that this new breed of dead human will never notice. Architecture's responsibility to human functionality is finished, and form without function is pointless. The result is that architecture, like the humanity that invented it and then promptly turned its back, is now a rotting corpse that doesn't know when to lie down.”

              This stance, which some critics have branded Peterson's “architecture of nihilism,” has informed many of Peterson's newer structures, the most recent being a church he designed for a Protestant congregation in Duluth, Minnesota. Composed of shining metal and glass on the outside, Peterson left the concrete interior unfinished and even unplumbed. Peterson's website lists the project simply as “Church” and its goal as “exploring the structural implications inherent in the vacuity of the religious gesture.”

              “We had to scramble a bit, sure,” the congregation's pastor said. “We hired a plumber, brought in some pews and chairs ourselves. It's a nice building, really, once we took care of those details.”

              “There's no point to being alive today,” Peterson concluded in his statement from Lucerne. “I keep designing buildings mostly because the act has tremendous destructive potential—I destroy and clear out what was there before, and then replace it with something I know will soon be destroyed by someone else. The modern cycle of redundant carnage is invigorating. Eventually I'd like to tear down an entire small city and then not build anything in its place.”