Prestigious Pritzker Award Goes to French Architect

Christian de Portzamparc earns the field's highest tribute

THE Pritzker Architecture Prize, the highest honor an architect can receive, will be awarded to Christian de Portzamparc of France on June 14. The ceremony will be held in Columbus, Ind., a community that has more buildings by world-renowned architects than any other small town.

Mr. Portzamparc is the first French architect to receive the honor, which includes a bronze medal and $100,000 grant for a lifetime of achievement. Born in 1944, he is also one of the youngest to receive the award.

In an interview in Paris, the architect described his style as ``of today, more personal than modern.'' Unlike some modernists who concern themselves mostly with function, de Portzamparc says it is more complex. ``An architect must remember that the people working or living in his building need space - to dream, to be quiet, to find beauty somewhere,'' he says.

One of his early commissions (1971) was a water tower in Marne-la-Valee, France. ``I hoped to give a nondescript expanse a visual center.'' The water tower, with an outer skin of fine-mesh open trellis work, was covered with climbing plants. It was transformed into a monument.

Portzamparc says the design for Cite de la Musique (City of Music) in Paris was his most challenging. It is regarded by President Francois Mitterand as one of the ``great projects'' of France. As Portzamparc explains, ``It was difficult - administration, musicians, regulations. Once inside these walls, I wanted the 2,000 who live and work there to feel comfortable, that was important to me.''

The first phase was completed in 1991, the final section will open next January. The complex includes a concert hall, a museum, rehearsal halls, dwellings for students, meeting places, and restaurants. The entire plan is a rhapsody of graceful curves, slopes, domes, and green spaces. It is evident why the Pritzker jury described Portzamparc as ``a powerful poet of forms and creator of eloquent spaces.''

The architect was born in Casablanca, Morocco, where his father was in the military. His family moved to Brittany, France, when Christian was six months old.

``I remember when I was 6 playing with my cousin, who was 10. We were both painting [a talent he continues today], and she suddenly told me something her father had said at the dinner table the night before. `In art, you can't worry about energy or money. You must keep your dream and persevere,' '' he says.

``At the time, I'm not sure if I knew what perseverance meant, but I certainly understood energy. I'm also not sure why that moment has stayed with me, but I do know it is a fact. When I am true to my inspiration, even fight for my design, the project always turns out well.''

When students at the Cite de la Musique, or ballerinas at the Dance School of the Paris Opera, or a couple walking through the Bourdelle museum in Paris, or tenants of his apartment building in Fukuoka, Japan, describe the light, space, or greenery within and without the walls as energizing and inspiring, then, he says, his heart sings.

The architect will be awarded the Pritzker Prize by Jay Pritzker, the head of the Hyatt Foundation. It is modeled after the Nobel Prizes with the final selection made, and voted on in secret, by an international jury. Over 500 nominees from more than 40 countries were considered this year.

Portzamparc is one of a new generation of French architects who have blended lessons of the Beaux Arts into a collage of contemporary design idioms that are bold, colorful, and original.

``When I was 18, I lived in Greenwich Village, New York, for nine months. At that time, I wanted to change the world, not through architecture, but through painting. I lived the artist's life, mingling with poets and writers, and working as a waiter. I was intrigued by the aliveness of the city,'' he says.

When he returned to Paris, he finished his degree in architecture but did not start working immediately.

``I became interested in a group of sociologists who studied how people interact with their neighborhoods,'' he says. ``We studied the buildings and did interviews asking people why they like to live in the structures and why they didn't. I began to understand architecture as a social responsibility.''

The interaction between old buildings and new ideas became important to him. He says, ``In the '60s when I was a student, there was this campaign to destroy 75 percent of the old buildings in Paris, replacing them with modern architecture. I realized this as a dangerous utopia. This modern vision did not understand the richness of the city. Thankfully such destruction did not happen....

``My home is a 19th-century apartment in Paris. My wife, Elizabeth, from Brazil, designs furniture and manages a gallery. We have a small garden so our sons, Serge, 11, and Philip, 8, have a little greenery and a view of the park across the way.''

He continues, ``I was a student of architecture at a most fortunate time. In the mid-60s, they passed a law that the design of city buildings would be via a competition, and all ages could submit. Before that, you had to be 45 years old to get a commission. The very first building I ever designed was a small house on the seashore in Brittany. Instead of one house, I did several little houses, each linked together, with their own garden. There was one section for the living room, another for the kitchen, another for sleeping areas. Each was autonomous, yet bridged together.

``The other evening I was thinking about that first little house, and mused how certain elements come back in my present designs. A work must have an identity, a function, and an energy.''

Recently, Christian de Portzamparc has won other competitions - to build a courthouse in the south of France, to design a museum and library in Brittany, to conceive a business tower that serves as a bridge to a railway station.

His goal is ``to have a personal approach, rational control of individual inspiration, remembering always to serve the people who will work or reside in these buildings. That,'' he added, ``is what is important to make the world livable.''

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