On March 11, 2015 Carol A. Wilson FAIA sat down with the architect Bruce Fowle FAIA at the National Academy Museum where he is an Academician and whose work is currently featured in an exhibition titled, REVEALing Architecture featuring the work and projects by FXFOWLE Architects and artist Richard Haas in the Curatorial Lab.
The exhibition runs through May 3, 2015. For more information, see: http://www.nationalacademy.org/museum/
CW I want to start by talking a bit about the exhibition. Featured in the exhibition is a piece designed by young architects from your office. You helped them design this installation.
BF Yes. This was a rare opportunity because usually we are creating the space, but in this case we are creating the object within the space. The room is a rotunda that is about 14 feet in diameter and has two points of entry so it required some ingenuity to make all the circulation work and have something in the space that was meaningful.
And the challenge was, because this is basically a fine art museum – the Academy consists of artists and architects – we didn’t want it to pretend to be a sculpture because some of the world’s greatest sculptors are members here and we cannot compete on that level. We were trying to find something that provided a link between sculpture and architecture and by demonstrating technology. The concept is a computer-generated continuous bent frame formed by wooden rods connected by wires and louvers to create an illusion of surface, light, and shadow as you move through and around its multiple facets. Although it appears to be kinetic, it is actually static. While we were trying to find the delicate balance between architecture and sculpture, it is the technological application to the non-functional form, a pure object, which makes it unique. And at the same time it is hand crafted. The computer could only take it so far before the team needed to step in and make it all fit.
CW Is it handcrafted, or is it cut by a CNC machine? The joinery is extremely precise.
BF The wooden bends were ordered from a shop, but the actual fitting to the straight pieces required some ingenious handcrafted connecting devices to allow for tolerances. One guy had a shop in his house where he did a lot of the woodwork. The positioning of the holes for the wires was set up on a jig by a computer, but the actual drilling was all by hand. I’m sure we could automate a lot more of it now that we’ve gotten over the big learning curve.
CW What I noticed was the eased wooden rail that goes around the entire perimeter and the joinery of the eased rail.
BF We wanted it to be a very honest expression of what it was, it could have been all painted white, it could have been very different, but we wanted to show the materiality of it – how it was built. And we wanted to really make something that hadn’t been done in the museum before. It was making a new kind of space – a rare chance for architects to show their stuff in a venue like that. Most of the works that are shown there are sculptural objects, paintings, or prints not designed specifically for that space. It was a very special opportunity for these young architects to have the freedom of expression, in a public setting and not to be tied to building codes, clients, and contractors.
CW But it feels very architectural; someone might look at it and say it’s a piece of what? Is it off a building? Does it go on a building? And at the same time it is an installation, because your work is constrained by the space.
BF It is a derivative of a project that we have done in Atlanta, Georgia, which is an intermodal terminal, and there is a huge bus level, a parking level, where we had developed a screen wall that was done more or less the same way where we had stretched louver-like elements, creating form, rotating, twisting in different ways, and at the same time letting it breath – it was more of a visual screen than an object.
CW If someone looked at the intermodal station in Atlanta would they recognizes this piece? Is there a visual relationship?
BF Well, the intermodal terminal hasn’t been built yet.
CW Oh, (laugh).
BW It would be difficult to make that connection, because the Atlanta piece is a very linear, very soft gradual form, blocks long, where in this case it is all contained within 14 feet. There is a lot more happening, a lot more three-dimensionality here, than there is in the Atlanta project.
CW It was fun coming to the opening and seeing these young architects surrounding you, like, what do you think about what we’ve done. How were you involved in it, were you part of the design of the structure or were you the critic for the young architects?
BF Well I am, as you know, President of the National Academy so this is a very generous opportunity that was afforded us, but at the same time it was a chance for the Academy to demonstrate the process of architecture – something other than models or renderings. It created an opportunity to really show what architects do and how they work.
CW If architects can be named as Academicians, I would think they would get equal opportunity to display their work, or, are architectural shows just not that common.
BF Architects are only about fifteen percent of the Academicians. Traditionally over its 185-year history, the Academy has tended to be artist dominated, but it all depends on who’s in charge.
CW So at the moment how many fellow living architect Academicians are there?
BF I think there are about sixty-five, something like that.
CW More than I thought.
BF Which has increased substantially in recent years. But the average age is quite ‘up there’ – so we have to be careful to bring in new blood which we have been doing regularly. We have been striving to get more members elected on a national level, more people from the west coast and across the country. The same is true of artists, where we need more gender and racial diversity to make the Academy much more relevant and forward thinking.
CW Although in architecture, age is relevant because it takes so long to know, to understand, to make, and not only to know, but to arrive at a place where you know where the story’s going.
BF As Architects we have many awards and honors and other very definitive ways that we judge our talents and set our standards of excellence by. The visual art community doesn’t really have that. There isn’t any one or two or three metrics or measures of competence or accomplishment – certainly not like FAIA or a Gold Medal or a Pritzker Prize winner. It is much more subjective, much more varied, because there are so many different art forms. You might be voted best sculptor of the year by some magazine or association, but it is not something that everyone can relate to – nor will it necessarily get you enough votes from the other artistic disciplines to get you elected to the Academy.
CW Do you think those titles are important?
BF No. No I don’t. But they exist and the point is, it makes it easier, if we, the architects of the Academy nominated an architect who has all of these credentials, it’s almost a shoo-in for them to be elected.
But artists are much more discerning whether they like or they don’t like the art, it is more of a personal taste, not that architecture isn’t as well, but it’s much harder to present artists to the same level of recognition.
CW Architects are recognized by their peers.
BF That’s right.
CW A benefit of this is that you know you are on the right path or a good path. It gives you some information about what you’re doing.
CW On that, lets shift gears. Because I know you, not well, but well enough, I know that you have a passion for sustainability.
Because sustainability means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, even within the profession of architecture it is used in many different ways, what is your working definition, what are the characteristics that you think of when talk about sustainability.
BF Well, it is a very broad subject with many different definitions but to me in terms of architecture, it is all about the impact on the environment, the built environment’s impact on the natural environment, and that can include everything from habitat, to ecology, to climate change, to all of the above – it’s human quality of life, it’s health, it’s productivity. It’s very broad but in my mind it is essential because we are losing habitat all the time, we are losing species constantly, we are destroying all of our natural resources, water resources, air and so forth.
Buildings have more impact on climate change than any other single entity – more than transportation, more than industry, more than farming, basically because of all the energy that goes into lighting, heating, and cooling buildings. And in places like New York City, where we don’t have agriculture, buildings create over 85% percent of the greenhouse gases that come out of the city.
Architects are in a stronger position to do something about greenhouse gases than anybody else when you look at it from that point of view. Not that we control all of the buildings, much of what gets built is not architect designed, but for those who can have a positive impact, we are in the strongest position.
CW I hadn’t really thought about it in those terms. People talk about architects who are talking about sustainability, but where we are building – we may not be putting out greenhouse gases – but we are consuming the most raw materials, no?
BF Yes, yes. Material resources are critical. We are already at the point where we cannot sustain ourselves with the resources that we have left. And if the entire population of the world lived the American lifestyle we would need eight earths to sustain us. It’s a no brainer, we cannot continue doing what we are doing and sustain this planet.
CW You probably know about our ecological debt day, the approximate calendar date on which humanity’s resource consumption for the year exceeds Earth’s capacity to regenerate those resources that year, which in 2014 was August 19th?
BF This may be a ten-year-old statistic, but what we need right now, for the lifestyle that the world lives, is 1.21 earths, so we are already in the negative. When I first started lecturing about this 12 or 15 years ago we were saying that the carbon content of the atmosphere was 380 parts-per-million and we were saying if we don’t change our ways by 2015 we are never going to be able to recover. And we are now at over 400 parts-per-million and it is still going up at the same rate. We are in serious trouble.
CW Do you think we can recover? Do you think we are on a doomsday path?
BF I think at this point there is no question about it. The best we can hope to do is make it a lesser doomsday. Ten years ago I thought there was a reasonable chance that we could still do something about it if we could turn it around quickly. At this point, it is obviously too late. We don’t have the political will or the moral commitment – and the world population wants to live the American dream.
CW And you have children and your children have children.
CW I don’t have children and yet I think about people who do and what it means to bring children onto this earth and what their life will be like.
BF I think the best thing we can hope for at this point is minimizing the impact. We are not going to stop sea level rise, maybe instead of being ten feet, we can keep it to five feet, who knows. Every scientist has a different theory on that. At this point it’s really just minimizing the impact and making it so that life can sustain itself in some form when the next transformation of the earth happens. A lot of us will be moving away from the shore.
CW People will be looking for fresh water. Yesterday our friend Daniel Marquardt was talking about the pros and cons of opening a new office in Sao Paolo, Brazil where they are having such a drought in every part of the city that it may bring building to a grinding halt.
BF Water is another really serious problem. Eight or so years ago I was giving a lecture in Colorado where the predictions are for the largest amount of growth, the highest use of energy, the greatest production of greenhouse gases, the most extreme water shortages – all happening at the same time and people were like, you’ve got to be kidding me, they just were not ready for it. They seemed to be in denial – and these were architects! And Lake Mead was already down 100 feet. What are they thinking?
CW I went to school at North Carolina State University’s School of Design. They had a fabulous Student Publication. In 1952 students interviewed Mies who had given a lecture and they asked him a lot of questions about ecology, and sustainability. John Todd, and Ian McHarg and Ricky Saul Wurman were young and getting ramped up at that time, and Mies said much of what you said and then he added, “but it wouldn’t be my guiding force. That wouldn’t affect what I am doing.” That was 1952 and now here we are, 63 years later.
BF And speaking of driving forces, there are all sorts of forces working against us. Every apartment building now has to have floor to ceiling glass and if you don’t provide that, they are just going to find someone who will. We are using more energy trying to heat and cool them, we are killing more endangered birds with the glass, and we are just going in the wrong direction.
CW So when did you become a carrier of the torch. Have you always felt this way or was there a point in your career when you went oh my god, look at what we’re doing.
BF I always had an instinctive sense, being brought up as a Yankee – a tightwad. The notion of waste was something that my parents taught me not to do. We always had to turn out the light, we couldn’t make too long a telephone call, did composting, that sort of thing. . .
CW Where did you grow up?
BF The first five years I grew up outside of Boston, but then my father took a job in New York City and I moved to Long Island, so I grew up in suburban Long Island.
CW But you sill carried your Yankee roots?
BF Yes, I was a Red Sox fan all that time, arguing with Yankee, Dodger, and Giants fans and they were always right. It was 57 years before the Sox won a world series.
CW And so your background was ‘no excess’.
BF Right. So, when I started designing houses on Martha’s Vineyard years ago, we had rented houses that had natural ventilation and no insulation, so you would cook on hot summer days. To me, it was just instinct that you would design a house so that the prevailing breezes would blow though it and cool itself down to make life somewhat tolerable. But I wasn’t one of the pioneers of this way of thinking – there were a lot of people ahead of me, including the Native Americans. My first natural ventilated house was 1968, and if I did that today I would probably get a prize for being so cleaver. Nowadays it’s considered “advanced technology.”
CW And was that on Martha’s Vineyard?
CW Was that the Taylor house?
BF Yes. So then I did another solar house in 1980, a passive solar house, that was a much more serious effort to be highly energy efficient as a winterized house.
CW Where was that house?
BF That house was in Goshen, Connecticut. You’ve seen it, the Ziegler house.
CW Yes, both the Taylor House and the Ziegler House were in an exhibition that I curated for Haystack’s 50th anniversary, Haystack’s Architecture: Vision & Legacy.
CW And was that house recently demolished?
BF Torn down to make way for a McMansion. An air-conditioned McMansion.
CW The Ziegler house was a passive solar house?
BF Yes, and when we started the firm and we were doing major buildings in New York, we were always looking for energy efficient ways of doing things and double glazing was something that had just come out in the mid-70’s and there wasn’t any question we would use it, even though it wasn’t mandated. There were many things that we were doing, but not under a flag of sustainability as much as just instinctive, smart, common sense.
Then in 1993 I got a call from a friend of mine who was working for the New York Department of Design and Construction and she had been charged with starting a whole series of green buildings in New York. She sent out a letter to people that she knew were interested in this – I had worked with her on a number of initiatives, I don’t recall how I first got to know her, Hilary Brown was her name – and she called up and said they were putting together a list of approved architects to do green projects and would I be interested in submitting for it.
That was the first time we had to sit down and analyze all the green things that we had been doing and how we could sell ourselves as green architects. It worked, and we were approved as one of five firms in the city. That became our foray into what was then a burgeoning sustainability cult.
CW That was 20 years ago long before things were codified.
BF This was long before the lexicon, way before LEED. That really got us off and running and then when we designed Four Times Square, the Conde Nast Building, we had the opportunity to make that America’s first green skyscraper. We used lot of the connections we made through that “cult” to find the expertise necessary to accomplish that.
CW Is thinking of sustainability as “cult”, is it that people simply do not understand how critical and essential it is to building but think of it as something “in addition to” or as “an add on”?
BF There is still a lot of that. At the time, we said that we transformed the green world from Birkenstocks to pin stripes.
The skyscraper we designed was 1.6 msf and the largest green building in the US at that time was 50,000 sf, but there were no metrics. There was no way of measuring a green building, but when we realized that we were saving 49 percent of the energy that would go into a normal building of that size and shape, we said okay, that’s it, we’re going for it – we’ll call it a green building. By the time it was built, there were articles published all over the world and it became very significant in the green movement. And, it was part of the catalyst that got the LEED program started. It was shocking to realize how badly we had been designing buildings before.
CW Is that building still being monitored?
BF Yes, but one of the biggest problems we have is getting the Owners to provide that kind of information. For whatever reason they are very hesitant to do that whether it’s because they are not performing the way you think they are, or should be, or they think there is some legal exposure. That is something that the USGBC has now changed, it mandates that you have to have follow-up every so many years with hard data.
CW Do you know much about the International Living Building Institute (name now changed) or the Living Building Challenge? It has been described as LEED on steroids.
BF Started by Cascadia Green Building Council, the Living Building Challenge?
CW Yes. I taught a course on the Challenge. Basically, I was interested because you did these things because you believed in them. You did the very best you could do on every aspect of the building. There were some standards that didn’t apply, other things that did, and you simply did as much as you could because that is what we should be doing. And so it was not codified like LEED, it is now, and yet LEED followers felt that it was too extreme. I simply thought if you could meet the standards, why wouldn’t you.
BF We have yet to get to that level, most of our work being urban, it is very difficult to meet those standards, basically you have to build a one-story building to meet all of those requirements.
CW The thing that appealed to me when LBC came out was that you didn’t have to “meet” every criteria. Here are the criteria and you do what you can. So it wasn’t saying “Yes, you’re in.”, or “No, you’re out”. Because, for example, the Best Buy store in the Maine Mall has 20 showers and 20 spaces in a bike rack – no one is riding out there on their bike or taking a shower at work and yet it was LEED certified.
BF No question. LEED has been an enigma from the beginning. I was very concerned when it first came out that it was just a numbers game and it wasn’t really energy focused. So it was not likely to have a meaningful impact, but then after a couple of years it became clear that it was actually having an impact because it was the one common language. You could go to a developer or client, ask if they want to be LEED, and have a discussion. After a few years, the question was not do you want to be LEED, but what rating do you want to go for. It created a dialogue and the marketplace started to respond.
CW You can sell a building with metrics, we’re saving you 49 percent of the energy used by a typical NYC skyscraper.
BF And it has come a long way, especially with the later versions of LEED being more energy focused.
CW Regarding architects and sustainability – do you think our focus is too narrow? When you talk about sustainability you talk about water, birds, loss of species. And when architects think about it, they often think about. . .
BF . . .getting on the cover of Architectural Record.
CW (laughter) Right. Right, or they might go as far as to have south facing glass in Maine, and screening it. It seems that LEED is getting people on the bandwagon and this is essentially what you want to do, but architects seem to have a very narrow view of what they do. Do you think that is the case?
BF Yes, certainly the vast majority of architects don’t really think about it, but they are now forced by clients occasionally to think about it. For more and more awards submissions, you must now include sustainable characteristics as part of the submission. It is coming around and will soon be mandated in most programs – I hope.
Nevertheless, I think there is a lot more talk than action. I see it in my own office where it’s really cool to talk about sustainability, but it’s another thing to be able to take a client who doesn’t know anything about it, who has no interest in it, and convince them to do it if they don’t want to. Or, if they don’t want to do it, to have the commitment to walk away from the job. I keep saying this in my office: “this is a job we should not be doing.”
CW And have you said no?
BF Yes, we have in the past and I hope we can continue. Very few architects have that level of commitment, and we’re part of the AIA 20/30 Commitment where we have charted out as to what percentage of our projects have to be green as we progress over the next thirty years. We’re way behind. We just can’t get there – partly because of the urban typology. If we were doing all suburban schools, for example, it would probably be easier because a lot of the states and municipalities require it. Such mandates exist for certain typologies, but when you are doing a lot of commercial development in high-density areas, it’s hard. We do have a base specification that requires a certain level of green for all our projects. Anytime there is a choice of product that does not cost more money it has to be green, if it’s costing more money you have to get the client to go along with it. For some, we can’t be green enough – at least until the bids come in.
CW So it’s important that you bring your clients along with you. Education. You are working on that right?
BF The building codes are inching toward a point where green buildings will be mandated for every project, so there is less teaching to be done in some respects. A lot of the things that were considered green before are going to be standard now, but there is always another level – a higher threshold. At least we are well ahead of where we were.
CW Another aspect of the Living Building Challenge and one of the things that drew me to it was the importance of beauty. We see architects very well versed in LEED, but the original Living Building Challenge had 13 petals and one was titled “Beauty”, in the belief that beauty is inherently green. Look at the buildings in our city that are beautiful, people value them, they take care of them, they maintain them, and they have inhabited them non-stop over centuries.
BF The greenest building is a loved building.
CW So I thought that architects must also not lose sight of beauty, its what we do. We do a lot of things, but our focus on aesthetics makes us designers not builders.
BF Yes and at the same time we are doing a lot of ephemeral architecture; we’re using very cheap mass-produced materials to create form very cost effectively. The computer will allow us to do anything, so it’s not like we necessarily need stone on the façade to make it a really attractive or rich façade.
CW So are we changing what the nature of beauty is?
BF Yes, but are these materials going to last? Glass is something that lasts pretty much forever.
CW Durability is always part of our thinking.
BF Yes, durability, that’s what I’m talking about, but we can do amazing things now with very good R-values on buildings, that look very light, well insulated and recyclable. Will so much lightness and ephemeralism ever be a substitute for traditional permanent materials? I don’t know, but given the need to constantly re-purpose buildings, it would seem to be the more sustainable way.
CW When you and I met at Haystack, one of the beautiful things about the Haystack campus is that it could be dismantled and no one would ever know that a building had been there.
BF Right, and that is the difference between disturbing the natural terrain and creating something ephemeral built with natural materials that can just go away.
CW And you are saying that this is more easily accomplished today with the kind of materials and technology that we have.
BF Yes, but that isn’t to say that we cannot apply new technologies to the traditional, natural materials to ensure there sustainability.
CW Speaking of Haystack and its architect Edward Larabee Barnes. Who were your mentors?
I would love to hear about your mentors and mentoring young people. When I came to the opening of the exhibition, there was a flock of young architects surrounding you and they had a twinkle in their eyes, proud of what they had done. They were clustered around you and I thought there’s a great story.
BF I think that is one of the motivators at this point in my life, young people really want to learn and they are just so eager to get everything they can out of you. And its interesting, because the current leadership in my office is not as interested in learning from me as the young ones.
CW Do you think mentorship skips a generation?
BF Yes. I think you are at more of a competitive level with your peers. But the younger people look for what they can learn from you and treasure those moments.
CW They are like sponges, it feeds back wouldn’t you say
BF Oh definitely. Someone just asked me the other day if I teach. I do serve on juries and I have taught studios but I have never had a regular teaching job, so I said “no, but I teach all day long.” There is so much to learn and I’m still learning. I have 54 years of practice behind me and I learn something every day. You can imagine what these young people have to learn. It just keeps on coming, and I don’t do CAD so I’m not even of that world.
CW If they saw the tidal wave coming they might run but right now they are running toward it
BF One of the things that stimulates me, and I think it is essential for any office, is to be surrounded by that young blood. People are constantly trying to express themselves and challenge me with new ideas. The National Academy exhibit was a perfect opportunity for young people to show their wings. We run programs in the office where young designers can let loose, whether it is doing a competition or an internal sketch session, and be challenged. Just give them a problem to solve or simply to have fun with. The rewards are well worth the effort.
CW Something outside of the weighty responsibility of detailing for a client.
BF Yes, because they get so bogged down, they get on a big project and they might be learning, but they might be doing minute details, or some other repetitive tasks, and in a rut for a long time. They really need to have a chance to express themselves.
CW It takes a long time practicing to realize that using young talent that knows CAD, where they can do drawings efficiently and quickly, that you are not doing them a favor by keeping them in that rut. To actually use that talent and to be energized by it, and when you push them they push back. Middle management might push back but in a different way, more of a power struggle.
BF We have always had a very open process. We are not departmentalized and we don’t have people who do just working drawings vs people who do design or write specs or some other thing. Everyone gets involved in the design process to the extent that their talents will take them. When we start a project, usually we will have a sketch period where anyone on a team is free to come up with ideas. We encourage that so people really get engaged in a project. Then we have a dialogue and discuss the pros and cons of each idea. It’s a huge learning experience.
CW And when you see young smarts what do you do? Do you get a twinkle in your eye?
BF Take them under you wing, don’t let them go. The challenge is to provide continuous opportunities so that they feel their skills are being utilized and there is a depth to the thinking process.
Another thing that we always encourage in young people is to actually have field experience and follow a project through fruition. We give a lot of tours of projects under construction that people can sign up for if they are not necessarily working on them so that they can really experience that. My philosophy from day one: I don’t think you can be an intelligent designer until you have seen a building executed.
CW I often talk about our drawings as a set of instructions. We are not building anything. We are creating a set of instructions to tell someone else how to build something and unless you understand the ramifications of this – that the biggest part of our work is how do I tell someone else how to do this in such a way that it is well done.
BF There is a philosophy to working drawings. Architects need to have a better understanding of that. To me working out a detail and tidying up a drawing is as much fun as anything – you are really solving a unique problem and you are communicating with the builder.
CW That’s the beauty of the installation here, in that every connection, material, form, eased railing, you could not overlook a thing.
BF I did have influence on that, because I saw some pretty bad details initially. It’s not really my creation, but I helped turn the screws, so to speak.
CW Without that, not having done that. . .it’s essential. Mentoring is so important and so often forgotten in the way architecture is practiced, which is too bad because if you pay attention to it, it can be so rewarding and it can energize what we’re doing.
Who were your mentors? One of the ways we know each other is through Ed Barnes – you worked for Ed Barnes and I knew Ed Barnes and I curated a show of work by architects who had been influenced by him or by his work. And other than Ed Barnes, I don’t know much about your career background. You studied at Syracuse? When you went to college did you know that you were going to study architecture?
BF Yes, but I did not know anything about architecture. I was a fairly unmotivated student in high school, and the one thing I knew I was good at was creating things. I always loved to build models and create sandcastles at the beach. It turned me on. And I was always the one who ended up orchestrating the decorations for the soph hop and junior prom. Nobody else seemed to know how to do that and for me it was just natural. And then I came into the city one day and saw the first glass skyscraper – the Lever House had just been finished!
CW I walked underneath it last night, and thought how that space is always so remarkable.
BF But you have to think of it in the context in 1954 – the only glass building in New York if not the entire US. When I saw it, I just knew that was what I want to do. It was such a departure from the standard buildings of the day and it was so fresh and fantastic. And now I am trying to talk people out of doing glass buildings!!
CW Well a lot of that has to do not with the glass building but about the spaces, and the spaces on the ground level.
BF All true, but that was what really led me into architecture.
CW And when you went to architecture school, was it a fit? Did you know you were in the right place?
BF Well, yes and no. I was really too young, too interested in being a good-old-boy college kid, but I stayed focused enough to get through.
CW How old were you?
BF 18, but I had to make a decision at age 17, which boggles my mind. My kids were no more ready to make a decision like that at age 17. It wasn’t easy to find a balance between a serious education and all the distractions of frat life.
CW You were probably as smart then as you are now
BF If I was, it wasn’t evident. After a stint in the Air Force, I came out and got my first job doing a 46-story hotel in Manhattan. I was in an office that specialized in hotels, and there was almost no mentoring. Of the 15 people on the project team, the total aggregate years of experience of all fifteen was probably about 4.
This was called learning the hard way – a cold shower. And by the time the project was done I was one of four people that basically carried it all the way from design to construction. It was a huge learning curve; a hotel has everything in it, kitchens, ballrooms, bedrooms – and none of us knew anything.
CW And how many years did the project take?
BF Well it was 1961 through early 1964.
CW And the firm?
BF William B. Taber Associates. There were some very good partners there but they weren’t really worried about the things they should have been worried about, so we made a lot of mistakes and you learn by your mistakes. From then on I always seemed to be a step ahead of everyone else because I had that experience behind me. Syracuse at the time was not particularly strong in design but it was strong in the technical side. So I seemed to have a good jump, but I got so involved in work that I never went on to get a graduate degree I just kept working and eighteen years later I started the firm.
CW At that time it was not required, you could apprentice and then take the licensing exam.
CW We still didn’t talk about your mentors. At some point you worked for Ed Barnes. Was he your mentor or was he simply someone you worked for.
BF I always had an affinity for Ed Barnes’ work. He was taking the international style and loosening it up, very simple geometric forms in intimate scales which I really related to. I always tried to emulate his work and then when I had the opportunity to work with him, it was great. We got along very well, and he was a real inspiration because we were doing good work for good clients and I had not been in a working environment where design was at that level of importance before.
And Ed, as an architect, he didn’t have enough time to teach you everything you needed to know, but because of my background at that point, I think I made a major contribution to the firm and to him by being able to blend design and technical knowhow. He trusted me.
CW And you learned a new attitude about design and the importance of design.
BF Yes and it was also just a wonderful atmosphere in the office. Ed’s wife Mary was very involved and they would give parties for the staff and families at their house in Katonah. They couldn’t have been more elegant. Every thing had such a wonderful quality to it. That helped me in setting a standard of how to run my own office. Not that Ed was a perfect boss, of course.
CW He was very genteel and he was very warm. I had one mentor who was simply “f__ the client, get the thing done, and do what you want to do”, and I admired only the fact that he could get things done. And then I met Ed Barnes when he was designing a building for North Carolina State University and I worked for the campus architect, Edwin F. Harris. Barnes set the standard for human kindness and goodness.
BF A real class act.
CW A real class act! And you know, being southerners, we thought “how genteel”. That impressed me. I realized that one didn’t have to be a jerk to get things done. That was my experience of him. You seem to have that same characteristic; I don’t see you hitting people over the head to get what you want.
BF Well, not to the point where I am totally obnoxious, but there are people who would not agree with you on that. I do have certain standards, and when people don’t perform at that level, I can get very upset.
CW You probably get more tenacious the more you know, your commitment to sustainable architecture.
BF And certainly with my own team, but there have been people who just can’t work with me because my expectations are too high. I try to do that in a nice way, but it doesn’t always come across that way.
CW And there are other people who see this as a good quality. I’ve enjoyed hearing about your background and your growing up, because I know you but I didn’t know your history, coming to architecture when you were 17. I had the same experience, I started college when I was 17 and started out my freshman year in architecture school.
BF Boy, you were way ahead of your curve.
CW I was there five days and I knew I was in the right place, it may have been different then, there was a big gender issue.
BF That’s why I said you must have been ahead of the curve, you must have been one of very few women.
CW Something you said earlier about having a jolly good time in college – I thought, oh my god, if I don’t perform (one of four women in a class of one hundred) I’ll be ditched. But that has changed, it may still be the “old man’s profession”, meaning time to learn the trade, but the gender has changed.
CW We have talked about the importance of sustainability and I have learned something today. What would you say you are most passionate about? What really makes you happy and excited?
BF I would not be comfortable doing something that wasn’t sustainable. If I could combine the sustainability with something that was also very stimulating and that elevates the human spirit that’s perfect. To me you can’t do one without the other.
CW Because in your mind they are the same.
BF Yes. To me, I can’t look at a building, no matter how beautiful it might be, knowing that it is egregious from a sustainability point of view. It is very hard for me to see that beauty.
CW And sometimes you are required to deal with a conventional building. I know you’ve been working on the Javit’s Convention Center. Where is that going, and what are other projects at the moment.
BF Well Javits is the largest of them and it has made such a huge impact. We have accomplished so much there under really difficult conditions. I couldn’t be more proud of what we’ve accomplished.
CW Under difficult conditions, because of the location, the city, the constituents?
BF The fact that it is a public owned building, it was falling down and many were advocating to tear it down, it had been abused and in terrible shape both in terms of ambience and technology, and had its maintenance deferred for the full life of the building. People just mocked it. It was a joke, and a major embarrassment for the city. The perfect storm of political bumbling.
And now, we have turned it into something that the public, the show managers, and the operators love. I can’t say that we had all the political backing that we needed (we have had four governors during the process) so there are a lot of things we couldn’t accomplish, but if we find a little more money we could finish the job.
As both a way of being green and helping to preserve the new roof membrane, we put the second largest green roof in the county on it. It now has become a habitat for 11 different species of birds and a multitude of insects.
CW And this is a good thing that your building is invested.
BF All sorts of wildlife – bats, songbirds, gulls – everything is coming and nesting there. It has become a real habitat right in the middle of Manhattan.
CW So instead of putting spikes on it to keep the gulls off, you’re inviting species.
BF Yes, even though the gulls are eating the sealant off the skylights, but that’s another story.
We have the good fortune of having a great synergy between the CEO of the Operations Corporation, the Chairman of the Development Corporation, and us – a sort of a triumvirate on a mission to bring nature back to the city.
CW I have read a little about the project and it sounded complex in the sense that there were people who wanted to come in, and set up, and get out, and they needed access, and then there were the people showing their wares and they wanted an audience, and the audience needed transportation to get there and it’s a public building, it just sounded like there were a few too many cooks . . . but you saw that as an opportunity?
BF That is part of the reason it has suffered as long as it has because when it was finished in 1986, it was intended to be a catalyst for the redevelopment of the west side. The zoning was supposed to be upgraded and the subway was scheduled to be built. Well, that didn’t happen until just now. The subway will open in a few months and the development of the neighborhood is just beginning. It will be a whole new experience.
CW The building has had an opening. Is your work on the center complete?
BF Well, for the first phase that we could afford to do after the second governor, Spitzer, tried to kill the whole project, there was some funding that he couldn’t take away. Thus, we worked with just a fraction the original budget – but with a few exceptions we didn’t do anything to stop it from being completed in the future.
We are now talking about expanding the Center two blocks to the north for truck marshaling – getting all of the trucks off the street – so that the Hudson Yards Development can have truck free streets.
CW It’s a complex building type isn’t it?
BF We’re designing the biggest ballroom, a 56,000 sf ballroom that’s more than twice the size of any ballroom in New York right now, plus meeting rooms and more expo to bring it up to industry standards. It’s a great project and we have almost free design reign, so far.
CW And Marcia Fowle* is up on the roof with her binoculars.
BF Yes, everybody’s happy. Audubon is happy, Marcia’s happy, everybody’s happy. There was an editorial in the New York Times a few months ago saying what a great thing we have done for the city.
CW I read one story but I don’t remember reading about the roof and the insects.
BF And we’ve also reduced the bird kill from the glass by 90 percent. It had been the worst bird-killer in the city. We accomplished this by changing the vision glass to a lower reflectivity with a frit pattern that also reduces solar gain, and by replacing the opaque glass with stainless steel panels. That’s a good thing if we’re attracting birds on the roof and not killing them on the façade – as it had been before. This has had a huge impact on the movement to create bird-safe buildings.
CW The Times Building was also responsive to that.
BF The Times was labeled a “bird-safe building” because of the façade treatment but that was a Renzo Piano vision that didn’t really have birds in mind.
CW It makes for a good read. Some time ago I read Marcia Fowle and NYC Audubon’s Bird Safe Building Guidelines and the research behind it on bird kill in New York and how they actually counted and measured, and followed migratory patterns and who would think, especially if the doormen were out cleaning up the bird kill on the sidewalks before anyone arrived on the streets.
* Marcia T. Fowle and Paul Kerlinger authors of the book The New York City Audubon Society Guide to Finding Birds in the Metropolitan Area.
CW Marc Pachter, Director of the National Portrait Gallery, a place dedicated to presenting great American lives, has inspired me. He created “The Living Self-Portrait Series’ where he envisioned himself the painter, brush in hand for amazing people who he wanted to interview. One of his conditions was that they needed to be people of a certain age, over 60; it was a way to get away from what he called our youth-obsessed culture.
“It’s amazing for people to say they know how the story turned out. That’s the one thing they have. They know how the story of our lives turns out. It’s great to have an interviewee that can talk about all of those accidents; that can talk to the life narrative of how we get here.” Marc Pachter
I think that’s why the mentoring part is so interesting to me, because you look at the younger generation and know what they don’t know. Or you think about the work you have done in sustainability and you know what 80% of architect’s are clueless about.
CW And it may be hard to be in that place, but at the same time, part of what you want is to share it with other people.
BF There is no question that mentoring is important. When I said I didn’t have a mentor until Ed Barnes, not that I didn’t have people I could go to, to ask questions, how do I detail this or what material should I use there, and so forth, but they were not especially inspiring people. They were not people who were giving me a greater sense of my place in terms of design and where we should be headed with building form.
CW Think of the kind of impact you can have. Think of what being head of your firm now and the kind of impact you have had on New York City and even in smaller exhibitions in Maine looking back at your roots, I would say there is a distinct thread.
BF It was interesting. I was on a panel for Times Square a couple of weeks ago, which was a combination of a retrospective view of it and where it’s going from here now that it has been so transformed. We had done four buildings in the basic Times Square area, five actually, and nobody had really gone back and assessed those buildings and looked at it comprehensively in terms of what each building contributed and how that impacted the revival of Times Square. And that was good because none of the buildings – the Times building is really part of that category though it is not directly on 42nd or the bow tie area – but it was interesting for me because I put together a power point to go back and reflect on how we dealt with the mandated signage and in a manner that was sympathetic to the architectural form. It had almost never been done before in Times Square, as historically the buildings came first and then the signs were plastered on as an afterthought. But we had actually preconceived all of that and, in most cases, it worked out quite successfully.
That was a very satisfying experience because you wouldn’t put any of our buildings in the category of great architecture, yet they have all contributed to the success of the area. Of course, Four Times Square, the Conde Nast building, had its own stamp as the first green skyscraper. The most recent one, Eleven Times Square, forms the critical gateway coming from 8th Avenue into the 42ndth Street area. The Reuters building on the corner of 42nd Street and 7th Avenue is really the hinge point between the 42nd Street venue and the larger bow-tie venue. Many positive moves we made there were not mandated – in fact the guidelines were sometimes asking us to do the wrong things. For example, rather than hold the street-wall, we deliberately curved the tower so that it opened up lofty spaces at the corner to get more view and sense of space from one venue to the other. We made a low drum-shaped building on the corner that became a knuckle that you could identify from either venue. It sort of swings you around the corner. The scale of that drum building was tied into some historical buildings next to it on 42nd Street, tying it all together.
These were subtle and important moves, but none that you would ever raise a flag and say “look at what we’ve done here.” Just doing our thing as good urban designers.
CW But you were being mandated and the truth is that you should have been setting the mandate because you thought about all of those aspects of the place. And going back and evaluating, you can see the impact that you have had, which is pretty unusual, – especially to have done five buildings and to have had such a hand in such an important American place.
BF There were a few things I would have done differently, and some that I couldn’t control, but for the most part I feel very good about what we accomplished there and it was nice to have that opportunity on the panel to make people aware of it. Nobody had ever put it all together. People have written books about the rehabilitation of Times Square, but nobody really picked up on the subtle subtheme of the architecture.
And that’s true of most of my projects; there have been a number of contextual gestures, or moves, that really change the character of the public realm or human experience.
CW Or acknowledge the public realm, using the space instead of the building planting itself. Why did Conde Nast move to the freedom tower?
BF Cheaper rent.
CW Has that been asked of you a million times?
BF Durst, who built Four Times Square is now managing One World Trade Center, offered them a fantastic deal.
CW Last time I was there, I took a walk around to see Calatrava’s station and what was going on, and I must say, I’m not sure I am inspired to go back.
BF No reason to go back. I mean I am anxious to see Calatrava’s building when it’s finished, but I don’t have to go back ever again. Nor am I likely to because I don’t go to New Jersey on the Path.
CW But after 9/11 there was a group of architects – I think you were one of them – who were trying to help the City sort out what should happen there. You saw it as an opportunity to fix a place the same way you had fixed Time Square.
CW But it didn’t happen.
BF No that was painful. But I have done a lot of pro bono stuff that did not make much of a difference. I founded and ran the Planning and Urban Design Committee of AIA New York and we were very involved in a lot of the zoning changes, some of which were implemented but a lot were not. We were helping the mayor try to make the street-walls more continuous, to make more sense of scale, trying to get rid of what we call scar tissue, or blank facades on buildings. Every once and a while I run into some law I had helped initiate and I would say, oh my god, we have to do that!
But anyway, after 9/ll that whole movement, NewYorkNewVisions, was a really important part of my life. We were trying to avoid exactly what happened – that the process would be overrun by greed and politics.
The first objective was to consolidate all of the professional and civic organizations into one – there were 21 that were consolidated – so that we could speak with one voice. Otherwise nobody would know who to go to – landscape architects would be saying one thing, the planners another, and architects another. The synergy of NYNV was incredible with 400 people actively participating and representing 30,000 constituents.
We published a book on the Principles for the Redevelopment of Downtown, which was adopted, and later did another book on suggested ways of actually rebuilding. Then it just got off into politics and we lost control of it, which was really horrifying, and all of the things that we were trying to avoid have happened. Things like design guidelines for streetscapes and building never happened.
CW That hurts when you have given time and energy. This will be the last question and we’ll go find our friends, the Italian Invasion. I know you give time and energy, because you are committed to the things you believe in. You are walking the walk not just talking the talk. Is there an experience that you remember feeling great about, having an impact by putting yourself out there? You probably do that at work every day.
BF I think it would have to be the general influence I may have had through AIA New York in the practice of architecture with many others to set a standard for civic involvement, not sitting back and wondering why things are happening the way they are and not doing anything about it, but rather a much greater engagement for architects in the civic processes. I don’t think it existed before, and for whatever credit I can take for that, that makes me feel good.