Gottfried Boehm, the 66-year-old German architect known primarily in Europe for his humanistic approach to civic buildings and churches, was awarded the $100,000 Pritzker Architecture Prize at the Museum of Modern Art today.
"Thirty-five years ago, I came to New York as a young man and spent six months here," said the tall and angular Boehm, addressing the small audience of architectural critics and aficionados in slow but serviceable English. "This exciting city opened a new world to me."
The Cologne-based architect, whose father, grandfather, wife and three sons share the same profession, was chosen from a field of 550 nominees from 43 countries by an international jury including National Gallery of Art Director J. Carter Brown and various prominent architects and industrialists. The prize, based on the Nobel awards (which do not have an architecture category), was created by Jay Pritzker, president of the Chicago-based Hyatt Foundation, in 1979 "to encourage a greater awareness of how people perceive and interact with their surroundings." Past winners include Philip Johnson, Luis Barragan, James Sterling, Kevin Roche, I.M. Pei, Richard Meier and Hans Hollein.
Though he's taught at MIT and the University of Pennsylvania, Boehm has never built a building in the United States. In response to a question from the floor after he accepted the $100,000 check from Pritzker, the architect expressed a desire to build a New York skyscraper some day. Tapping the nearby wall in the meeting room to illustrate his point, Boehm said, "The new buildings with their curtained-wall fac'ades are very flat. You have nothing to discover as you come near the building. I would like to make a building for the people inside, not just to look at it from the street. Our cities don't need just new buildings but new connections that restore the sense of community to human beings."
Perhaps Boehm's most renowned structure is the Church of the Pilgrimage in Neviges, West Germany. It was described by Arthur Drexler, MOMA's director of architecture, in an exhibition catalogue as "a brooding apparition, a ghost from the medieval past inexplicably materialized in the midst of a bourgeois townscape."
Boehm's "connections" rely on the interaction between architecture and the urban environment -- what he has called "bringing back life and order to our cities and towns." A low-rent housing project Boehm designed in Cologne, pictured in Drexler's catalogue, appears vibrantly expressive with fabric-draped, multicolored terraces running along an undulating, poured concrete skin.
After the presentation, the prize's creator talked about why he had funded the award. "I felt that architects didn't have the recognition that they merited," Pritzker said. "I thought this kind of thing would be useful. No more, no less." Asked if his home town, Chicago, could use an architect like Boehm, Pritzker answered with an emphatic, "You bet."
On May 7, Boehm will travel to London for a formal award ceremony at historic Goldsmith's Hall, where the new laureate will receive the symbol of the Pritzker, a bronze sculpture by Henry Moore.
An exhibition of 51 of Boehm's architectural drawings, representing 29 years of work, is en route to the Graham Foundation in Chicago. That show will travel to the American Institute of Architects' national headquarters in Washington in September.