No, says James Stirling, winning the Pritzker Arcitecture Prize this year does not mean that the recipient is rolling in commissions or that the phone is ringing off the hook asking him to design one monument to magnificence after another. In fact, the $100,000 prize that was formally awarded to him last night will come in very handy, thank you.
"We live in bad times for architecture," he said. "At the moment we're on a starvation diet." Money, of course, is at the root of such evils, there not being all that much of it around, particularly in England, where Stirling does most of his work. "It usually takes about five years to get a building built, and in that length of time some of them get scaled down so fast they disappear into a small puff of dust."
But then, to hear Stirling tell it, he has never been ravingly successful, knowing too well what it's like to "sit alone in an empty office waiting for the phone to ring. In the late '70s, I took another dive into the silence. We'd still be there if it weren't for the work we do in other countries. We're never had a full workload, ever. I think of the 50 projects I've designed in a quarter of a century, 20 of them have been built. Rather a high mortality rate."
But then an artist's life is dictated to some degree by an artist's choices. There are, after all, pots of money to be made if only one is willing to design "sleepers," as Stirling calls them, the kind of buildings "that bring in money but never get published, never get any attention." The kind of buildings, for that matter, that line most urban corridors, consisting of the requisite number of right angles sheathed in a surface that reflects the banality surrounding them. "Ninety percent of all architecture consists of sleepers," Stirling says. "Most successful architects are those with political and commercial skills, and they put their energies into that instead of into the design. You live a precariouis existence to produce the best buildings."
Stirling grew up in Liverpool, a "small but monumental city," where his father was the chief engineer on a merchant ship that plied the Long Route back and fourth from China. It wasn't, however, the lore of the sea that attracted the engineer's son, but the beautiful, meticulous drawings of machine parts and turbines that his father left at home.
Stirling's military service during the war made him eligible for an educational grant, and he studied architecture at the Liverpool Arts School. "I had nearly the same education John Lennon did, only about 10 years earlier," Stirling says. "I went to the same schools, I had all the same teachers. I always felt as if I knew him well. We grew up in the same part of Liverpool, we drank in the same pubs."
Stirling is 55, a big, bearlike man dressed in a black outfit that is alleviated only by his purple socks. He and his wife, Mary, and their three children live in London although Stirling spends much of each autumn at Yale, where he is a professor. The prize money, he says, "will give me a security I never seem to have," and the prize's prestige, he hopes, will bring in the clients.
How would he describe his style to prospective clients? "I don't think we have a style," the "we" referring to his firm of James Stirling, Michael Wilford and Associates. "We try to produce a solution for the problems at hand. I suppose our buildings are more articulated than you expect buildings to be."
He looks up and out the window to the straightforward geometry of the building opposite his room at the Hyatt Regency. "Like that building there -- it's bland and, if you like, boring. Our buildings have expressed, articulated pieces; they're never flat or very regular. One tries to express the different functions, the staircase, the corridors, the entrance hall. It gives identity to the building. It doesn't just disappear in the urban scene."
And what of Washington's urban scene? "The city has no texture except for its monuments," Stirling says. "You don't get a sense of it from its other buildings. New York has an identify given to it by its office buildings. Washington doesn't have a balance. The monuments are a bit overstressed."
Stirling's most famous composition is Leicester University's Engineering Building. He has designed a number of buildings in Germany as well, and is working on projects now for Harvard, Columbia and Rice universities. He avoids working in the Middle East -- "Architects have had bad experiences there," he says. "We once were invited by one of the richest men in the world t submit a design for a project and we never got paid for it."
Occasionally, Stirling says, inspiration for his designs comes "in a blinding flash. Usually, however, you grind it out. The ones that come in a blinding flash tend somehow not to get built."
The fact that he works on a relatively small number of projects each year has had its benefits, one of them being the close association he keeps with each design until its completion. "It means sustaining a dynamic in the creative process for about five years," he says. "You can't just start the process and walk away."