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Ceremony Acceptance Speech

Norman Foster

Mr. President, Mr. Mayor, My Lords, Mrs. Pritzker, ladies and gentlemen. As individuals, we’re all shaped by the diversity of our background, our history, influences, education, experience. Both personally and professionally, I continue to be so fortunate to have that many generous colleagues and collaborators, patrons and clients, and above all, wonderful parents. In that sense, the Pritzker Prize is widely shared. Because like the production of any architectural project, there are many parties involved. And tonight, I would like to try to pay tribute to them.

I have very special debts to America and to Europe, which probably started when I was a teenager. Because through my local library, I discovered the very different worlds of Frank Lloyd Wright, of Le Corbusier. Imagine the contrast of a home on the prairie with a villa and a Paris boulevard. And yet, I remember being equally fascinated by both of them. Ten years later as a graduate student at Yale, those pages were to come alive through one of the several, great teachers that I’ve been privileged to learn from.

It was the insights of Vincent Scully that opened my eyes to the interaction between the old world and the new. He made more meaningful those European cities whose urban spaces and modern works I’d studied on my travels as a student at Manchester. A vital part of the Yale experience was the total immersion in the work of great and talented designers, across the breadth of America from coast to coast.

Architects learn from architects, past and present. But the two other dominant teachers at Yale polarize for me the cultures of America and Europe. Paul Rudolph had created a studio atmosphere of fevered activity, highly competitive, and fueled by a succession of visiting luminaries. The crypts were open and accessible and often combative. And it was a can-do approach in which concepts could be shredded one day to be reborn overnight. But the only criteria was the quality of the work presented; the architecture of the drawings and the models. There was no room for excuses. No substitute of rhetoric.

The emphasis on tangible results in the studio summed up an American world in which everything was possible if you were willing to try hard enough. For me, that was a breath of fresh air. I felt less like the loner who’d left Britain. America gave me a sense of confidence, freedom and self-discovery. My timing of Yale in 1961 was more fortunate than I could ever have foreseen, because it marked a change of leadership from Paul Rudolph to Serge Chermayeff. So we had half the year of one and half the year of the other. He was as European as Rudolph was American, not just in dress or manner, but deeply rooted differences in philosophy.

For Chermayeff, debate and theory took precedence over imagery. Questioning was to the fore, analysis dominated action. But I really warm to this approach because Manchester had been more about the tools of the trade, the disciplines of drawing, of putting materials together. There was little time for conversation, let alone debate.

Incidentally, I remain grateful for the grounding in the basics. Chermayeff opened me up to his researches with Christopher Alexander on community and privacy. And at his invitation, I was tempted with an academic career at Yale helping to pursue city planning studies, a subject which is still very close to my heart. Of course, the relationships are really more complex. In some ways, I went to Yale to discover a European heritage because America had embraced those émigrés such as Gropius who taught Rudolph at Harvard, and was for Rudolph, I quote, his “point of reference” in the same classes with I.M. Pei, Harry Seidler, Ed Barnes, a list of a whole generation of American architects coming out of that European tradition.

But looking back with the perspective of nearly fourty years, I can see that our practice has been inspired by these polarities of action and research, which means trying to ask the right questions with an insatiable curiosity about how things work, whether they’re organizations or mechanical systems. A belief in the social context that buildings are generated by people and their needs, and those needs are spiritual as well as material. Never taking anything for granted, always trying to probe deeper, to access the inner workings behind the many branches of human activity for which we, as architects, are charged to explore and respond to.

So it is the marriage of analysis with action that is at the core of our studio. And I’m deeply grateful to my partners who have helped me develop the roots of this approach over the past twenty-five or thirty years: Spencer de Grey, David Nelson, Graham Philips, Ken Shuttleworth, and more recently Barry Cook. But all of us have a very special debt to my late wife, Wendy. Because together we formed the basis of the present practice in 1967. For a brief period, Michael Hopkins joined us as a partner. He’s still a kindred spirit and I’m very grateful for his support then as now. Wendy instigated the move to our present studio at Riverside on the Thames. It’s a powerhouse of youthful energy with an average age of just over thirty, and commanding as many languages. It’s spirit in so many ways is similar to that Yale studio. Sadly, Wendy never lived to see its realization. But for her, for me, her memory lives on in my sons.

If 1967 was the start of our practice, then it also marked the end of a brief but intense and inspirational period, nearly four years which Wendy and I shared with my former Yale classmate, Richard Rogers, under the title of Team IV. Richard is still a dear friend, and it’s wonderful to share so many of those same values more than thirty years later ...

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