Jay Pritzker bounded into his hotel room somewhat like a Marine storming a machinc-gun nest, but his wife, Cindy, who is utterly accustomed to lightning, merely said hello, dear, and have a drink, so the two of them lived it up on Tab and lemon peel for a while.
He is one of the Chicago Pritzkers, one of the nation's richest and least publicly known families. Three years or so ago they were asked if they wouldn't like to endow an annual prestigious prize -- comparable to the Nobel -- for architecture, and to be plain this sounded about as attractive to them as falling down the steps.
But Carleton Smith, who had earlier interested the Getty fortune in a prize for conversation, was highly persuasive and the more the Pritzkers thought about it the better the idea seemed. The king of Sweden once observed that the Nobel Prize fails to cover a lot of creative endeavors, including architecture. Thus it happened the second annual Pritzker Architecture Prize was presented yesterday at Dumbarton Oaks.
"Had no idea what it would involve," he said.
One thing it involves is a $100,000 gift to a winning architect, this year Luis Barragan of Mexico. (Last year the winner was architect Phillip Johnson).
"And I'm ambivalent about this. I'd like all the publicity there is for the prize and none for myself. I don't like personal publicity and I'm not the kind of guy that wants the best table at a restaurant." (Which is the one thing personal publicity accomplishes).
"I've just come from New York where there was a testimonial affair honoring my father, who is 84. I was quite nervous about it, but it went off very well. I think maybe worry more about things than my father.
He had given some delightful examples of worrying. He was the family member who first got them into the Hyatt Hotel business, through the simple expedient of having some extra time at a California airport in 1955. They told him there was a motel right there at the airport and since he had time to kill he went to see it and promptly bought it.
"I can't believe it," he said. "You buy a little motel and all of a sudden you have 87 or something. When the Hyatt Regency in Atlanta came along it attracted a great deal of attention with its central well and the elevators on the outside. I take no credit for the design, it was designed before we came along. But I did worry about that central well. Moist air rises and what if it's suddenly cooled when it reaches the top -- why won't it rain? Another thing that bothered me was a sort of parasal over the bar, suspended on cables from the roof. I wondered what would happen if a drunk gave it a shove -- wouldn't it revolve forever like a Foucault pendulum? Well, they solved that by taking some coathangers and wiring it firm."
Pritzker's grandfather, father, he himself and his son all became lawyers. The grandfather was a lawyer of the kind that makes will, negotiates the sale of small stores and so on. It was this grandfather that insisted young Jay should represent a client in court -- you can't be a lawyer if you haven't ever even been in court -- but Jay Pritzker says he lost that case and has had no great desire to practice in court again.
Not that he's lacked for something to do, for since his grandfather established the family in Chicago, they have branched out into many businesses. "We seem to have had an entrepreneurial bent," Pritzker said. Apart from the hotels, the family interest have included magazines, electronic organs, gloves, mining, namufacturing, trucking, real estate, textbook publishing, lumber. The Wall Street Journal in an article five years ago estimated Pritzker holdings then at $1.5 billion.
The grandfather, Nicholas, came to America in 1902 from Russia. Jay Pritzker said it's practically incesstuous how close the family has stayed.
"We really don't see a lot of other people. We have family suppers may be three nights a week. My three sons and daughter. One of the biggest joys of life is family skiing parties to Vail. I like that 20 minutes in the lift, with nothing to do just talk."
It was suggested you can talk for 20 minutes -- just casually and about nothing in particular -- without getting in a ski lift and he said, "Yes, but how often do you do it."
At 57 he looks 45. He plays squash, tennis -- no longer golf, which takes forever -- and has a trim athletic look. On entering his room, he pitched off his coat and took off his necktie. His dark suit and white shirt were Standard American Uniform except, perhaps, for a dazzling bright brass belt buckle. His dark eyes look straight without staring you down and he moves his body almost continually. A man of action, but maybe with a flair for the theater, too? Since he so often puts himself in another guy's place and tries on the role for size.
"Never was greatly interested in the theater," he went on. "I think I am a realist. I have a son who is much taken with Chekhov and Kafka. Some days I say I am going to get one book ahead of him. But I don't introspect -- maybe because it's self-defeating. I am not a religious man, or a great philosopher.
"It's true I once went big game hunting in Africa and shot an elephant and so on. The animals didn't have a chance. It's a sort of macho thing, no doubt. I think there'd be a little more challenge in it if you went with just a bow and arrow. Though if I did, I'd like some other guys with bows and arrows to be along.
"I'm the kind of man who likes to try almost anything once. I've been in almost anything that flies -- balloons and so on -- I was a Navy flier in World War II -- and one thing I did appreciate in Africa, to mention that, was the pattern of life and death. I remember we were 30 yards from some lions, stalking them, and ahead of the lions by 20 yards was a zebra. Suddenly the sky was full of vultures -- they just appeared.
"I like to watch them," he said. He looked out the great windows of his Hyatt Regency suite and admired a fire engine taking off, following a great bolt of lightning. He glanced for the first time at the elaborate bar that had been set up (the one that provided the Tab) and at the other end of the room decided to explore a large ice sculpture of a sturgeon. It rose up over a jar of Beluga caviar and some iced vodka and various trimmings. He ate caviar and pressed it on a reporter who to be polite ate maybe half a pound, along with several cups of coffee.
His wife reminded him it would not be a bad idea to get dressed for a dinner at Dumbarton Oaks and Pritzker, who had already made up his mind exactly how much time he needed, agreed with her and continued chatting.
"With architecture," he said, "there are all these compromises. The architect wants to build a masterpiece. The client wants to make a buck. If the cost of land is $150 a square foot, you have to build straight up. And only a genius can do something wonderful with a straight-up building. Another reality of architecture is that, say, a building costs $7 million. The last thing you do -- in a hotel, say -- is the interiors of the rooms. It always costs more to build than you expect, but there's some guy whose job may depend on bringing the building in at the budgeted figure. So when you get down to that last million, you can often wind up with crappy hardware, hollow doors and the like. mIt's not architecture -- but often you can't help judging a building by what has been done to it in small details like the hardware of the doors.
"The hardware here looks okay," someone said.
"Yes. But you ought to see New Orleans."
Well, you can't win them all.
"I was in Tibet recently and a Chinese official seemed very interested in having a hotel built at Lhasa. I said man, you don't want a hotel, you want to go out on the edge of town and build some nice guest houses -- one story. Who wants to go to Lhasa and stay n a hotel like New York? I think it may be a macho thing, by which all cities like Lhasa feel they need a super modern hotel."
He said he thought sometimes about the future of the architecture awards:
"There are the esthetics of architecture. Then there is something else too, like new ways of saving energy in building, new materials -- there is a fellow in France who has a quite new kind of wall. The members of our jury are all famous for the esthetics of architecture and art.There is no reason, if they like, that the award could not go for innovations in building, as well as for work esthetically moving."
His wife walked in and smiled and he got the message and he himself got moving.