Interview with Thomas J. Pritzker | The Plan
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Interview with Thomas J. Pritzker

Interview with Thomas J. Pritzker
By Nicola Leonardi -

Nicola Leonardi - Your city, Chicago, is known as the “Windy City”. I think of it rather as the “Architecture City” - the place where 20th century architecture was born. Chicago must have been an inexhaustible source of inspiration. What’s your relationship with your city? Did Chicago prompt the idea of the Pritzker Prize?
Thomas J. Pritzker - The background of the Prize, started in 1979, was that a fellow came to us with an idea. He had no introduction; he had no relationship with us. He just had an idea, and that was to award an annual prize in areas that were not covered by Nobel. Architecture was one of the areas not covered by Nobel.
Because of the combination of our history with Hyatt in architecture and our history in Chicago, we were aware of the impact that architecture could have on people’s lives, on people’s everyday lives. Everyone virtually is affected by architecture. So we worked with this fellow - his name was Carleton Smith - to develop the idea.
One of our criteria was that there had to be a jury independent of us, made up of knowledgeable men and women from around the world, not necessarily just architects, but people who understood architecture, and that they would make the selection. The quality of the jury was the critical element in creating currency in the prize. The value of the prize really was a reflection of those making the selection.
So, yes, Chicago was instrumental in our thought that architecture would be an area where we could have an impact by creating a prize. The Millennium Park has an interesting story and actually somewhat connected with the prize, and certainly with us. Underneath the park are railroad tracks, frankly an ugly set of railroad tracks, running in the most beautiful space in Chicago.
The mayor had the idea to create a park. If he could put parking on top of the railroad tracks, the revenue from the parking would pay the bill to build the park and top off that parking structure. He pursued that vision but didn’t really understand or didn’t think about the possibility of doing a park that could be truly unbelievable for the architecture and art that could be placed there.
My mother actually was on a city committee for design and she said: “No I object. I think it’s a great idea to have a park here, but I think that we can do better than have just a park that is similar to other parks in the world”. She said that she wanted Frank Gehry to do the Music Pavilion. Frank had been a Prize winner. He is a friend and the Prize has really heightened our awareness of architecture, just as it has done for other people. The mayor was a little bit hesitant because he said: “Look I am a Chicagoan and I like what Chicago produces”. But he sent someone out to Frank to say “Would you do a portion of the park?”. Frank answered: “No, I can’t do it; I’m too busy. I won’t be able to do it before the Millennium starts”. The guy from the city replied: “Well, we will delay the opening of the park if you do this”. And Frank said: “Something is wrong with this. You haven’t told me the full story. Nobody is willing to delay the opening of the entire park for this”. The guy then added that Cindy - that’s my mom - wanted him to do this. And Frank threw his hands up and said: “Okay, (laughing) I don’t want to fight. I don’t want to hear about it. I will do it if Cindy insists, I will do it”.
So the Prize and Chicago have been intertwined with us, and it has not only done wonderful things for architecture, for the public and for our family, but also has come back for the city in a very elegant way.

N.L. - The Pritzker Prize by-laws note that awarding a prize every year to a great architect, and thereby supporting architecture, is important because architecture can influence human behavior.
Can you expand on that?
T.J.P. - Let me return to Frank again. I don’t want to overweigh him, but the question you ask leads to an experience we had. We were vacationing in Spain, in Madrid, and we told our kids we wanted to take them to Bilbao to see his building. They grumbled. They didn’t want to go to see a museum - they were teenagers at the time. And we said: “No, no, no, we have to go and see it and so you will come with us”.
We went to Bilbao and drove up to the Guggenheim. As we walked down the stairs you could see their eyes light up. They started talking and it literally created energy; these are three boys and it created an energy I had never seen. One of them walked up to the building and started rubbing his hand along the titanium tiles and when they saw that was okay, the three of them started running up and down the side of the museum, running their hand along it. It was fascinating for me to watch because, in children, what you get to see is an unfiltered emotional reaction, and you could see in these three kids the excitement that the building created.
So I think, for me, that was a reinforcement of a sort of theory that I had, that the environment you are in can affect your emotions, can actually affect, in my mind, the chemistry in your brain. I don’t think it is purely emotional, I actually think we will find that there is some scientific foundation to it.
When you are, for example, in the mountains, or sitting by a river, or in the midst of the pyramids, or in the midst of a great modern building, it does trigger a thought process, a mood, a series of emotions that are very real. I guess what I would say is go to the Millennium Park and look at the people standing in front of what we now call “The Bean”, Anish Kapoor’s sculpture. Watch them looking at themselves and at the city’s reflection in it. You can see that art and architecture clearly do have an effect on people’s everyday lives. For art it’s harder because it’s mostly in museums, so you have to go there. But architecture is all around us, and so really can affect people’s attitudes every single day.

N.L. - Another big issue is the impact of architecture on the environment. What are your ideas on sustainability?
T.J.P. - It’s something that I feel very strongly about. For example, at Hyatt, how can we contribute to the question of sustainability? We have a whole department looking at how we are doing in terms of sustainability and our ecological footprint and I have talked with others involved in this. I think it’s a very important issue.
I had a very interesting conversation with the Chairman of a very large company and I said: “How do you think we can do this at Hyatt? How we can best do it?” Because when you really look at the quantitative analysis of where carbon comes from, it is a very difficult problem that has to do as much with clearing of timber and energy consumption as it does with cars and other things in our everyday life. Clearly, buildings are a major source of carbon footprint and so, to the extent that architecture can come up with innovations that can be a very good contribution to the solution.
But the other element I think is very important is a demand by people that the political leaders pay attention to this, and likewise a willingness by people to pay for it as it’s going to affect standards of living. I think architecture is unique because it can contribute in both ways, by innovating in terms of the amount of energy that is consumed by buildings and also as a thought leader in terms of educating people so that they start demanding that the political leadership play a role in it, and accept some of the consequences that come with sustainability.

N.L. - Architecture and Ethics: what are the limits of creativity in architecture at a time when technology seems to have no limits? Today architects think they can do anything, but is there a point at which creativity exceeds a certain limit and goes too far? And what about the ethics of architecture?
T.J.P. - I never thought about that, let me think… I may try it this way. Technology has empowered architects to create shapes and volumes that they have never been able to create before, and so go beyond the limitations of our traditional tools that came in engineering, in materials. You are right. Many of those fences have been removed. And therefore it really then is the creativity of men and women, or individual architects, that will have to impose their own limits in what we see on our skyline. That will be affected, it seems to me, by everyday man’s reaction to what those architects are doing: If they are doing things that are unacceptable or not appreciated or in fact hated, it is going to affect their practice.
I hope it does affect their practice because I think the solution - I am optimistic about life, optimistic about our future - to some of our most difficult problems, whether it is sustainability, or terrorism, or epidemics, is going to come from man’s creativity. That’s really where the solution is. It is not going to be an economic solution per se. If we can do a good job in providing education to people, we will release their creativity and they will have to impose their own limits.
Going back to your question, people - architects, developers, consumers, the community - will have to impose their limits on what our skyline looks like. And for me that’s better than the limits imposed by the traditional drawing tools or the limits that materials imposed on us in the past.
Here we are entering an age, and it’s not only in architecture, it’s in many, many areas where our imagination is our only limit. That’s a very exciting concept. And going back to the sustainability question, those tools can empower imagination and creativity with ideas that are going to solve the sustainability issue. It opens up a phenomenally exciting era, if we think about the rate of change, the pace at which change is occurring. I was with some people some nights ago who are involved in the computer world, and we were laughing about the notion that I was an early adopter of e-mail around twelve years ago. You don’t really remember that different era.
I think we are going to see every ten years that the world is going to change profoundly, and that’s very exciting. I think we will see it in the world of architecture as well, as the new generation of architects is totally comfortable with these new tools. That will change the landscape, not just in grand institutional buildings but also in homes and normal buildings, farmhouses and the entire built environment.

N.L. - So the answer comes back to the issue of creativity having to solve its own ethical limits.
T.J.P. - That’s going to be the constraint actually, but it’s not only a physical constraint. In the terms you use, it’s an ethical constraint. Well, maybe it is also a market constraint. If you build a building and it is so horrible, you will not get many new commissions.
And so there will be some constraints other than your imagination, but the physical constraint would still be there. It will not be as pronounced as it was in the past. The physical constraints will begin to give way to other constraints. I think that’s very exiting.

N.L. - Back to Chicago, your city: Architecture and Structure. Chicago is a great example of synergy between architects and engineers. The Marquette Building or the Reliance Building, late 19th century and, nearer to our times, the John Hancock Tower, are all architectures that wouldn’t have been possible without the study and revolutionary impact of the structure. What about today? Architects and engineers seem to fight each other more than work together. What is your view?
T.J.P. - I am not an architect, so I am not seeing behind the curtain, but I will tell you to go look at what’s happening at the Art Institute. We are building The Modern Wing designed by Renzo Piano. We are also building a bridge that is going to be a remarkable feat of engineering to go deep into Millennium Park. It’s a very long bridge, I think maybe 600 feet long. Piano designed it. And what he wanted was a razor thin bridge because, as you drive down Michigan Avenue, the lake is to the east, and he wanted to protect that view, just as he wanted the bridge  to read as a very light structure. Getting across a major road, Monroe St., was not an easy feat of engineering because it is a very broad span. So he wanted a broad span and a thin profile. And he has done that. He solved that problem by working hand in hand with engineers. Over the years, he has found engineers he has become comfortable with, and they have become comfortable with him. So part of his success is having formed a team that can work collaboratively.
What we have got at the Art Institute is a Renzo Piano building, looking directly onto the Frank Gehry Music Pavilion. The axis between the two is directly aligned and will be connected by the thin bridge. The Renzo building is “Renzo”; it’s fantastic but it’s profoundly different from the Frank one, which is “Frank”. Both are world class buildings brought to us by virtue of a team of specialists led by a talented architect. Frank was able to create a remarkable Music Pavilion with a team that brought the different disciplines he needed into a single team, working together rather than fighting each other.
Gehry also built a bridge within the Millennium Park. It is almost worthwhile to walk across it to get the experience. It’s a very interesting snake-shaped bridge. Eventually we will build something on the other side, but at the moment there is nothing there. So there is no reason for people to go up on that bridge today. But people do, just to enjoy the bridge itself, not for the functionality of crossing over.
So both, Renzo and Frank have mastered the important creation of an interdisciplinary team. And what you see in business and in architecture, to me, is that the most successful people are not going to be individual stars, like Frank Lloyd Wright. They will be teams, even if they may have a star as their name or brand. In the future it will be those architectural firms that have been able to create a team concept, where there’s a structural engineer, a design architect, and other disciplines like environmental engineers, that will create a great product. So some architects may say, “the engineer is my constraint”, but the successful ones will say “the engineer is my team mate” and he is going to empower me to do what my imagination says I want to do.
So, in a successful environment, they may be debating, they may be discussing, they may be even yelling at each other, but they will be doing it with a common purpose and a common passion. I think that’s what is going to occur and I see that in business. To me, the successful business model will have to be a team approach, because business has become too complicated for the brilliant CEO model.

N.L. - I attended a conference some days ago with Jorge Schlaich, an engineer who works with Frank Gehry in Europe. He admires Frank Gehry… for an engineer, that’s pretty significant.
He told me: “Nicola, you know, he always drives me to the limit. That’s the challenge”. I found that thought provoking.
T.J.P. - I think that the great engineers take that attitude. In other words, you see the effort at The Modern Wing of the Art Institute, or the Morgan Library. The effort Renzo was making was to have a fully glazed facade that disappeared. Yet these are very large structures and so you need structural integrity across a window wall. So he worked very collaboratively with the designers and the fabricators of those window walls in order to allow his vision to be transformed into a reality.
I think Richard Rogers has to do the same thing. If you look at his structures, structural integrity is critically important. But it’s a structural integrity that is integrated into the design. If you scroll through our laureates, both Thom Mayne and Zaha Hadid depend on that. That’s what comes with the marriage of your ideas with those of your collaborators. And so I think they are all integrating structural engineers in their teams.
As a commercial developer, that means you can’t just bid the structural engineering job out, because they are actually now part of the team. So from a commercial point of view, what I want is to have competition at all levels. I find the designer-architect, but then I need a competition for all of the various other groups working at it. It is harder to do that, because Frank, or Renzo or Richard will say: “Look, my problem is that I never met that guy. If I end up fighting all day long with him and he doesn’t understand my goal and my vision, the building will stand up but will not have the design you are looking for, or the design will be fantastic but he is going to jeopardize its structure”. You cannot afford to have either of those things compromised and so things become more integrated. The stress, or the tension - not necessarily unhealthy, perhaps even healthy - between the commercial, design and structural needs become quite interesting. I think we are just beginning to see that work its way through.
It may be that the Prize has in a way contributed to developers’ awareness that great architectures can be commercially viable and smart - that you can actually add value to a building by doing a great building.

N.L. - That is a great goal if you can achieve it!
T.J.P. - I think we are just now beginning to see it. Developers are now saying, “You know what? I really do want Zaha Hadid to do my building for commercial reasons. It serves my purpose of making money.” Great architectures and making money have all of a sudden, only in recent years, become allies, no longer adversaries, and as that starts to penetrate the psyche of developers, then you’ll start to see that triangle between developers, architect and structural engineer forming collaboratively as a team. They are going to do this because the profit they are looking for is coming from community’s and users demand for better architecture.
We are the developers of this building that we are sitting today (the Hyatt Centre, editor’s note). We thought very hard about its impact on the skyline and green issues and ended up with a great building, but that was because we sort of understood the deeper challenges and opportunities that come from first class architecture. I also think developers will get comfortable with a particular architect and work with him on multiple projects. And if you have an effective team, you get a multiplier effect.
Look at the All-Star Games versus normal competition. The All-Star basketball players are the best ever in basketball, but they only come together for a little bit of training and one game. They are not nearly as good as whoever is the champion team that knows how to work as a team. And you will see that sort of awareness developing in the architecture world, where the team becomes quite important. Finally, the best teams have great leaders and since that is a whole different, but interesting topic, perhaps we can leave that for next time.
Thank you.

Chicago, The Hyatt Centre. Monday, December 10, 2007



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