NEOMEDIEVAL. From Pritzker winner Gottfried B"ohm -- a striking fusion of past and present

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Gottfried B"ohm, a West German architect whose individualistic expressions of contemporary design defy simple categorization, has been awarded the 1986 Pritzker Architecture Prize. The award, intended to fill a void in the Nobel Prizes, includes a $100,000 tax-free grant and a Henry Moore sculpture. B"ohm received the grant at a ceremony last week at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The sculpture will be formally presented May 7 at the Goldsmith's Hall in London.

Mr. B"ohm, who practices in Cologne and is relatively unknown in the United States, designs modern buildings that make strong ``connections,'' a favorite word of his, to the urban environment and between public and private spaces. His most stunning work, however, is that which joins elements of the old with the new.

As Brendan Gill, New Yorker critic and secretary to the Pritzker jury, observed: ``For 40 years, B"ohm has succeeded in interpreting and transforming the architectural riches of past centuries into contemporary structures, thrilling in themselves. His works are to be found scattered throughout Germany in the form of town halls, churches, theaters, museums, and public housing. When we encounter them, we sense immediately, to our delight, that we are immersed in a vivid mingling of the present and past.''

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Architecture seems to run in the B"ohm family. ``Son, grandson, husband, and father of architects,'' the award citation noted, ``Gottfried B"ohm has reason to recognize the nourishment that traditional ways and means, handed down from one generation to the next, provide in architecture, as in all the arts.''

B"ohm studied engineering in Munich, and followed that with a year's study of sculpture. In 1947 he joined his father, Dominikus B"ohm, prominent for his ecclesiastical work throughout Europe. He took over the family firm in 1955 and since then has designed a wide variety of buildings.

To many observers, B"ohm's finest work is the Pilgrimage Church at Neviges, completed in 1964. The molded and shaped concrete roof resembles a contemporary, stylized version of an ancient castle or cathedral, and the voluminous interior is no less fascinating. The same is true for the City Hall at Bensberg, also completed in 1964, which won a European Architectural Heritage Year award in 1975. Constructed on the ruins of a 12th-century fortress, the facility echoes the past without mimicking it.

Reached by telephone after the award ceremony, B"ohm told the Monitor that the way to link old and new architecture is by the use of sympathetic materials, color, scale, and structure.

Speaking partially through an interpreter, B"ohm said that in Bensberg, where the original material was stone, he used concrete and treated it like stone.

While he has used poured-in-place concrete to create a number of muscular forms, he has also used modern materials such as glass and steel with equal strength. More recently, he has turned to precast concrete, but chooses never to repeat himself.

``I have my own character. I use different kinds of materials on different kinds of projects,'' he explained. ``We must all be flexible enough to change.'' Despite the variety, B"ohm says the ``character'' of his works is constant.

Among his newest buildings are two in Stuttgart -- an elegant, domed pavilion in the courtyard of the opera house and an office building wrapped around a seven-story glazed atrium.

Philip Johnson, who received the first Pritzker Prize in 1979, called B"ohm ``daring'' and welcomed the jury's choice. ``He's an individual expressionist, the kind of architect left over from the 1920s,'' Mr. Johnson said.

B"ohm tends to be outspoken about his profession. Recently he wrote, ``I think the future of architecture does not lie so much in continuing to fill up the landscape, as in bringing back life and order to our cities and towns.''

B"ohm told the Monitor he welcomes the variety in architecture today, noting that there is more than a single direction. Asked about postmodernism, the current rage, B"ohm pointed out that it can mean very different things. He favors those designs with ``austerity'' and does not like the work of those architects who simply ``play with forms.''

Although B"ohm has taught at the University of Pennsylvania, he has yet to design a building in the United States. He hopes the prize will lead to a commission here.

An exhibit of his work opens at the Graham Foundation in Chicago on April 28. Another show is scheduled for September at the Octagon in Washington, D.C., headquarters of the American Institute of Architects.

The selection of B"ohm was made by a jury composed of J. Carter Brown, director of Washington's National Gallery of Art; Giovanni Agnelli, chairman of Fiat; Thomas J. Watson Jr., chairman emeritus of IBM; and three internationally prominent architects, Ricardo Legorreta of Mexico, Fumihiko Maki of Japan, and Kevin Roche of the US, who won the prize in 1982.

The Pritzker Architecture Prize was established in 1979 by the Hyatt Foundation, whose president, Jay A. Pritzker, said he hoped it would increase awareness of architectural quality. The other laureates besides Johnson and Roche are I. M. Pei and Richard Meier, both of the United States, Luis Barragan of Mexico, James Stirling of Great Britain, and Hans Hollein of Austria.

Carleton Knight III reports regularly for the Monitor on architecture.

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