An Architect Talks of Building A Background for Dignity

When I received an invitation to attend this year's presentation of the Pritzker Architectural Prize, I couldn't help but think back to 1986, when I first covered this prestigious event.

I flew to London (my first trip to Europe), where Gottfried Boehm of Germany was to be honored. My first view of the city was through a sheet of rain, as I sat munching on fish and chips wrapped in newspaper. On the plane I'd read that Boehm was the son, grandson, husband, and father of architects.

The next evening was clear as a jewel, and my meeting with the Boehms was equally impressive. I had envisioned him as a large, powerful man, judging from the massive stone geometric styling of his masterful Church of the Pilgrimage in Neviges, Germany.

But he and his wife were slender, humble, and thoroughly adorable; they looked as if they should be perched atop a wedding cake. We made an appointment to meet the next day.

Of all the magnificent churches, museums, city halls, office buildings, and public housing units he had designed, he spent time talking about a small chapel, 4 feet square and not quite 11 feet high, which shelters a figure of Christ. He had built it the year before with Paul, one of his three sons who are architects.

"I think the influence of my father, Dominikus, who was my guide, can be discerned in this small building," Boehm observed.

"The chapel has clean lines, in the sense that you cannot add to it, and would not want to take anything away, either," he added. "Although the chapel is clearly new and of our time, it has formed a bond with the other buildings in the neighborhood - it seems to have been there all the time."

That was the secret of Boehm. "I have been entrusted with larger projects, yet all have presented me with the same problems as the little chapel. A building is a human being's space and the background for his dignity, and its exterior should reflect its contents and functions.

"After World War II, we cut wide gashes into the fabric of our cities the world over," he explained. "As my wife tells our sons, 'Our generation has built a lot, but your generation will have to work hard to heal all that.' "

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