All posts by Jefferson Riley

About Jefferson Riley

Jeff Riley, FAIA, graduated from Lawrence University with a B.A. in Fine Arts in 1968, received his Master of Architecture degree from Yale University in 1972, and soon thereafter co-founded the firm of Moore Grover Harper, the predecessor of Centerbrook Architects. Lawrence University bestowed on him its Lucia R. Briggs Distinguished Achievement Award. He is one of four partners at Centerbrook Architects and Planners in Centerbrook, Connecticut.

The Poet and the Storyteller


My son, Noah, is now an architect with his own practice. Went to Yale Arch. Sat near my old desk, the one that burned in the infamous fire, spring of 1969. He practices in Los Angeles, downtown. Riley Design Build, Inc.. I’m very proud of him. Thrilled he followed in some of my footsteps. Proud he didn’t follow in all of them.

We’re different architects. He writes poems with his architecture. Beautiful ones. Universal ones. Heavenly ones. I, on the other hand, tell stories with my architecture. Odd ones. Individual ones. Earthly ones. Our architectures are different. Doesn’t matter. At least to me. I like them both.

He uses light, shade, and shadow. Movement, by the eye, from space to space. Volumes, surfaces, insides, outsides. Clean lines. Tranquility. Economy and harmony in the use of materials. Structure expressed. Precision in details. Placement, just exactly right. Balance, both obvious and occult. Moods. Centeredness, the spiritual kind. His stuff is contemporary. Controlled. Classical. You can’t really explain it, except to theorize about it, to reason. It will change with the times, explore the new. It has to. His stuff is honest, really honest. He writes poems with his architecture.

My architecture is sensuous. Romantic. It tells stories about people and places and histories. It makes room for almost everything, for all the contents of individual, eccentric lives. Memories. Treasured things. Situations. Whimsy. Exuberances. Ambiences. Aromas. Sounds. Tastes. Textures visual and tactile. Shapes that mimic the human body. Gestures. Sociability. My stuff is empathic, sometimes bizarre. It‘s evolutionary, not revolutionary. You can easily talk about it. It isn’t all that interested in honesty. It steals and sometimes fibs just to make the story good. I tell stories with my architecture.

I think his stuff and my stuff can merge. Like a ballet. Swan Lake, La Bayadere, Don Q, or something. That’s the fun. That’s what’s interesting. That’s us humans. The stuff of deeply moving, sublimely transcendent poems and wonderful, even fantastic, defining stories. Both at once.

The Centerbrook Chair


March 1st marked the completion of our first “Centerbrook Chair” workshop. It was the culmination of twenty weeks of hard work by six participants: Melissa Kops, Derek Hayn, Anna Shakun, Justin Hedde, Keith Wales, and Peter Majewski. They were mentored throughout by Patrick McCauley, our Master Model Maker and industrial designer, and Bill Rutan, our Facilities Manager and master carpenter.

The workshop is a reflection of Centerbrook’s devotion to craft, to a sense of the handmade, to the beauty and humanism with which we endeavor to imbue all of our buildings. It is the first of many more workshops to come, at the rate of two per year. Participation is limited to six architects and staff members who receive hands-on instruction in a variety of building crafts, including woodworking, metal work, ceramics, resins, castings, fabrics, and finishes.


The task is to design and build a chair, which is then judged for sturdiness, comfort, craftsmanship, and beauty by the partners of the firm. It sounds simple enough. After all, a chair is less complicated than a whole building, and many architects famously have designed one, among them Wright, Corbusier, Saarinen, Gehry, Foster, and Mies van der Rohe. It should be noted, however, that after the experience Mies van der Rohe said: “A chair is a very difficult object. A skyscraper is almost easier. That is why Chippendale is famous.”  Continue reading The Centerbrook Chair

Composing a Place for Music

Hotchkiss School Music Center

“Every day the music center starts at least one conversation between an accomplished student of music and an inexpert passerby.”

The Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, CT asked us to design a new music center that would help bridge the divide between the confident and accomplished performers of music, who were few in number at the School, and the passive, intimidated, uninitiated, and sometimes disinterested, who were many. A new building, it was thought, could transform their moribund music program from a clandestine club holed up in the basement of the chapel, to a vigorous hub of inspiration for all.

We faced other assignments from the School as well: Could we solve the much discussed architectural discord between the gracefully detailed, beautifully proportioned, and passionately beloved Georgian architecture of the original campus (designed circa 1900-1930 by such renowned practitioners as Delano & Aldrich, Henry Waterbury, and Rossiter & Wright) and the modern Main Building, inserted, some feel insensitively, in the 1970s, but to which, nevertheless, we were being asked to connect? This was a challenge that had a less than certain chance of success. Continue reading Composing a Place for Music

Ocean House, To Save It We Had to Destroy It

More than half a dozen grand hotels once graced the Watch Hill peninsula on the western shore of Rhode Island, but a decade ago only one remained, Ocean House, an aging and ailing wooden behemoth whose top floors had been condemned for years.  Odds were increasing that this iconic landmark, its era long past, would soon vanish like the rest.

By 2003, bumper stickers around Watch Hill implored “Save Ocean House.”  The 1868 renowned, resort, ocean front hotel, where the silent movie “American Aristocracy” starring Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. was filmed, had just closed for good.  Its future was manifestly uncertain.  If Ocean House was torn down, could a litter of McMansions be far behind? Continue reading Ocean House, To Save It We Had to Destroy It

Green Grow the Campuses

Wind Garden at Quinnipiac University
Wind Garden at Quinnipiac University

How green a campus is today is a crucial factor in a college’s admissions, affecting not simply the number of applicants but also the percentage of accepted students, known as “the yield,” who chose to attend a given four-year institution.  Since the average applicant now applies to seven schools, the competition for top candidates is obviously fierce.  Recently the yield nationwide dropped four points to 45 percent, meaning that more than half the students who were accepted at various colleges and universities demurred.  As the number of graduating high school seniors decreases from a peak this year of 3.33 million, the battle can only intensify, especially as guidance counselors are reporting that a growing number of students are putting college on hold due to the economy.

So a green campus is among the features that this shrinking pool of selective students value.  I am not referring only to the aesthetic mix of trees, grass and shrubbery, important as they are, but to the ethical concern that an institution exhibits over energy conservation and impact of its greenhouse gas emissions on the environment.  The verb “exhibits” should be emphasized.  Colleges not only need to walk the walk, they want to be able to talk the walk, to show the world they are doing their part in protecting the environment.

A final argument for the greening of American campuses in a demonstrative fashion is the fact that sustainability has recently entered most educational curriculums.  In fact, it is among the fastest growing academic majors, according to a recent national poll.  Green infrastructure, therefore, can serve a duel role: as a responsible way to conserve and generate energy and as a “real world” teaching tool.

Continue reading Green Grow the Campuses