The Centerbrook 4 book tour continued in New York City on April 2 when iconic Rizzoli Bookstore welcomed our principals and co-authors for a wonderful evening at its location on Broadway near the Flatiron Building.
A crowd of over 60 gathered as Jeff Riley, Mark Simon and Jim Childress talked about themes that permeate the projects featured in the pages of Centerbrook 4. The fourth principal and author, Chad Floyd, was unable to attend, but his inspirations were also represented.
Here are some images from the event taken by our own Derek Hayn, who in addition to being a talented photographer, was also the graphic designer of Centerbrook 4.
We were recently fortunate enough to participate in a wonderful local tradition: an author event at R.J. Julia Booksellers.
The independent R.J. Julia is a Southeastern Connecticut treasure, proudly bucking the big-box, online trend. Its flagship location in downtown Madison has a long-standing series that hosts celebrity and local authors alike. We took our turn on Feb. 27.
Principals Jeff Riley, Mark Simon, Chad Floyd and Jim Childress spoke in front of a capacity crowd about the themes that permeated their respective chapters in their new book, Centerbrook 4. Jeff touched on his seven layers of allure, Mark described how buildings speak, Chad exhibited metaphor in architecture and Jim talked about sense of place.
A wide-ranging discussion followed, which prompted the most light-hearted moment of the evening. Asked to advise a budding architect, the four recalled in unison – arm-in-arm – the famed quote attributed to Henry Hobson Richardson about the most important aspect of an architectural practice: “Get the first job, then get the next job.”
The evening concluded with a book signing where attendees talked with the authors, often trading anecdotes and stories from past projects, events, and common acquaintances.
Centerbrook 4 is available for purchase on R.J. Julia’s online store.
This is more than a monograph of an architecture firm’s projects. In these pages we partners of Centerbrook (Jeff Riley, Mark Simon, Chad Floyd, and Jim Childress) show our work of the last 15 years, but in a departure from the monograph norm, we reveal the formative ideas behind it.
Our first three books presented us more or less as a collective, but here we present material by partner, each of us devoting 96 pages to photographs and drawings of projects accompanied by candid explanations of our inspirations, references, and design goals. The reader can judge how well we realized them.
We believe it’s fitting that this, our 4th book, which comes at the conclusion of our 4th decade, should bring our 4 ways of working into the light. The organizational format we followed these many decades has allowed the luxury of four unique approaches to cohabit within a single office. That’s a little different from what’s found at most places, where specialized partner roles such as manager, marketer, or designer, are the order of the day, and office output reflects a more singular point of view. At Centerbrook each of us finds and performs his own projects. We use communal office resources and are blessed with a spectacularly talented staff, but other than that, we’re pretty much on our own, and our work reflects it.
We do share a lot, however. We support each other, heart and soul; we influence each other; we watch over each other; and we’re generally of like minds. We respect rather than eschew tradition and are not afraid to make buildings that resemble something that came before. We are devoted to sustainability, including the enhancement of disappearing land and cityscapes that people hold dear. On campuses and in cities we try to stitch together torn and frayed seams, bringing focus, harmony, and completeness to places where architectural entropy had been setting in. We think buildings and the spaces between them should invite people to sit comfortably in shady spots, provide intriguing vistas, create special landmarks, convey special meaning, inspire small ceremonies, nurture big festivals, kindle memories, and delight the eye.
In our approaches there are differences to these ends and thus differences, too, in our buildings—some of them subtle, some less so, many revealed in these pages. We have long sensed a gentle and positive competition between us, but that competitive spirit is tempered by the mutual friendship, admiration, encouragement, and wisdom that comes from many years working together.
Our format has remained unchanged from our earliest days in 1975, when the oldest three of the current four partners—that’s Jeff, Mark, and Chad—along with emeritus partner Bill Grover and partners Bob Harper and Glenn Arbonies, both deceased—inherited our 19th-century factory in Centerbrook, Connecticut, from Charles Moore, our mentor. Charles had been Dean of the Yale School of Architecture, so as Yalies we three of the current four partners went pretty far back with him.
Bill, too, attended Yale Architecture. He operated ably as the closest thing we had to a managing partner, guiding us with Yankee acumen. Bob and Glenn had pedigrees from other fine schools and contributed strong fluency in construction technologies. A RISD graduate, Jim Childress was never a student of Charles’s, but he had numerous opportunities to work with him in the 1980s, so the four of us now remaining and featured in these pages were influenced at a youthful age by the verve and free-thinking of Charles Moore’s remarkable design talent.
In 1975 Charles headed off to Southern California, lured by UCLA which offered among other blandishments first class seating on airplanes. That left the original three of us, and later the four, to carry on, which we have been happily doing since, immensely grateful to Charles for making our firm’s launch easy. Charles died nearly 25 years ago, but his memory remains strong with us.
Eventually we came to call our office Centerbrook, thinking highway signs to the Village of Centerbrook where our building is located might give us some free publicity. Knowing more than that would be needed for success, we vowed then and there to evolve our operation into a top-notch professional outfit that would let us four shine independently while operating at the highest level of quality.
The uniqueness among architecture firms of our “independence” format is brought into sharper focus when you consider the dynamics of other creative groups—for instance, bands. How many rock-and-roll quartets have four musicians who write, play, and sing equally? Not many. Bands assign different roles to members according to their strengths. Not to compare us to the Beatles, but in that legendary band John and Paul did most of the writing and lead singing, but it was George who did the guitar heavy-lifting. In the Eagles it was Glen Frey and Don Henley who did much of the writing and lead singing, but it was Joe Walsh who did those amazing guitar riffs. Unlike rock bands, our goal has been to allow each of us four to operate across the full architectural spectrum exactly as we would be doing were we sole proprietors. Also, we’ve managed to stay together for four decades. How many bands besides the Rolling Stones can say that?
Our format has yielded a firm whose work is prolific, whose clients enjoy the ministrations of partner-designers, and where the staff’s artistic, managerial, technical, and support expertise is boundless. You might ask how critical the specific mix of the four of us partners is to our success? As with rock bands, each partner contributes a special something, so if you took one or two of us away from the place it would change, but only gradually, because Centerbrook’s staff and future leaders are strong. Many have been with us for nearly 30 years. They provide stability and a storehouse of experience that yields many dividends in mastering the diverse ways we design buildings.
In fact, design diversity is a Centerbrook trademark. That’s also a difference from most other firms, which inhabit narrow bandwidths of curvy planes, or glass and timber, or spikey towers—all striking to look at but limited in scope of materials and details. By contrast, our buildings are so aimed at each of their situations that they end up looking very different from one another. This means our staff must maintain a commanding knowledge of many materials and styles—a tall order.
This search for the particular , though, is Centerbrook’s greatest strength. It makes our work emblematic, but emblematic of our clients, not of us. To get there, we exercise a kind of ego-loss in which we unclog our personal design receptors of our own baggage in order to make out signals coming to us from our clients.
There’s another theme that runs through Centerbrook’s work: craft. We are fortunate to have a well-equipped shop where we make things by hand. It’s manned by industrial designer Patrick McCauley, assisted by the very able Ron Campbell, a former professional contractor. In addition to such things as architecture models, furniture, mock-ups, and specialty objects, our two maker gurus run a unique Centerbrook tradition called a “Chairshop.” Groups of employees take craft classes over several months and then work out the design and construction of their very own chairs, which then are juried by the partners. Our Chairshop is described in detail at the end of the book. Staff craftsman Bill Rutan, now retired, was a key ingredient in getting it up and running.
Even bathrooms at Centerbrook do not escape our penchant for the particular. Each partner took on the task of designing a bathroom for the use of staff and guests, and it turned out the four rooms and their arrangements could not be more different from one another.
So, in these pages the partners of Centerbrook open up in different ways—Jeff Riley about his affirmation of humanism, Mark Simon about his art background, Chad Floyd about his use of metaphor, and Jim Childress about his thought process. You can be sure the ideas contained here have been spread pretty thoroughly around our office, so consider this book a window into our place’s inner workings.
I am the 2015 Chair of the American Institute of Architects Committee On Design (AIA-COD). COD’s mission is to promote design excellence among our members, the broader design community, and the public at large, both nationally and internationally. Every year we organize two conferences, one inside the United States and one internationally, to discover new design in different places. Our itineraries include visiting historical structures, looking at details such as furniture, landscapes and learning about urban planning, although we mostly visit buildings–all kinds of buildings because COD members design everything from houses to skyscrapers, churches, museums, universities, hospitals and airports, to name a few.
In June we held a nine-day ‘sold-out’ conference to visit and explore Norwegian architecture designed by Norwegian architects. Through our own research, and help from Norske Arkitekters Landsforbund, we set an itinerary to visit some the most influential architecture in Oslo, Bergen, and Stavanger. We visited highlights of historical architecture, (the Hedmark Museum, a Stave Church, the Oslo Town Hall, a preserved farm with Jæren houses) but our primary aim was to learn from local architects by visiting their new projects.
I remember it was my final year at architectural school, and I was finishing my master’s thesis. After another long day at the drafting board, I stood in the shower still drawing in my mind, chasing the illusive vision of one perfect design. Suddenly, feeling the hot water on my skin made me realize how far away I was from where I stood. My body could have been on another continent, I was so detached from it. Indeed, it had been months since I last felt present. I was on a mission, abusing and neglecting my body, using it more as a vehicle to get from point A to point B.
I did not change anything right away, but the realization of that night made me more aware about myself. When I started practicing yoga, it was the feeling of being alert and present that kept me going, the feeling of being comfortable in my own skin.
I remember another time, at a job interview, when I mentioned that besides doing architecture I also teach yoga. My interviewer raised her eyebrows. “Yoga and architecture, what a strange combination,” she exclaimed. In fact, it is unusual for us architects to be interested in subjects not directly related to our profession. Architecture is a very monogamous occupation: it possesses you completely. It fully claims your time, your love, your ambitions, and your body. And yet the more I progress in yoga and architecture, the more I find how relevant they are to one another, the more one influences how I practice the other.
Every time I unroll my mat, I find my breath and listen. I apply myself, doing the best I can with what I have today. I try to stay in relationship with what I do, one breath at a time, trusting the process no matter how distant my goal may be. Continue reading Of Yoga and Architecture→
It was a damp and cloudy day and the Centerbrook quartet ⎯ Russell Learned, Melissa Kops, Aaron Emma, and I, plus assorted spouses and children ⎯ was putting the finishing touches on our eclectic Sand Castle à la Moore when disaster struck. The cookie crumbled, so to speak.
With just two minutes left before the judging in the prestigious, first annual “SandStruction Competition,” a design/build beach exercise sponsored by AIA Connecticut, a portion of said sand castle collapsed.
Our first reaction was utter despair. But then we asked ourselves, “What would the late Charles W. Moore, the man whose sketches inspired our design, have done at a time like this?” And the answer was clear: “Get all kinds of collaborative, and fast!”
So we did ⎯ and we made the necessary repairs with 30 seconds to spare!
Despite being overwhelmingly outnumbered by our competitors, our team captured first prize, a decidedly off-the-rack plastic spray-painted “Gold Bucket.”
This damp drama (the drizzle actually helped solidify our monument to Moore) was part of the recent Savin Rock Festival at West Haven Beach. It is not often that architects have an audience, and we showed off our penchant for using indigenous sustainably-sourced materials (to wit: sand and seashells by the seashore).
A big “shout out” to Frank Russo of our longtime client Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory; Frank gave us numerous helpful tips.
Several years ago, Centerbrook had the pleasure of working with Margaret “Maggie” Powell on renovations and additions to Yale’s Lewis Walpole Library in Farmington, Connecticut. Maggie has recently retired from her position running the place ⎯ as the W.S. Lewis Librarian and executive director ⎯ and she will be missed!
The project was daunting because the donor, Wilmarth Sheldon “Lefty” Lewis, had left his Horace Walpole-focused collection of more than 60,000 18th century books and prints to Yale along with his 18th century house, which was in no shape to keep them in proper archival condition. The site was in the middle of one of Americas most historic streets, in the middle of one of America’s most historic towns, and yet we needed to create a functional 21st century archive and research library. Our solution was to design it as a barn attached to the house, fitting in with its other semi-rural neighbors: old outside, brand new inside.
That sounds simple enough but the road to completion was rife with neighbors, many attentive town boards, Yale’s facilities team, and the Walpole’s own staff and board of governors⎯ all of whom had a say in the results. We began with our participatory workshops to get everyone working together, but it was Maggie, behind the scenes, who really kept the project intact throughout. And despite many appropriate opportunities, we never heard her raise her voice! That is a dream client.
Maggie has recently organized an exhibition showing the growth and improvements during her tenure: “A Collection’s Progress: The Lewis Walpole Library, 2000-2014” runs through October 3 and is accompanied by a small book that tells the story. We were proud to have been a small part of its progress.
How does one characterize a community of people who run marathons and Tough Mudders and also drive Autocross? People who hail from places like Oxford, Connecticut and Moscow, Russia?
Or people who:
Moonlight in bands
Danced with the American Ballet Theater
Wintered upon the Bering Sea
Can make a mean Norwegian Fystekake Almond Tart
Love fashion design and making dry-laid stonewalls
Is a self-described bleeding-edge early adopter
Never mind the groom who took a four-month honeymoon, or the woman who bought Chet Atkins a drink.
Again, how does one do justice to such a diverse, perchance quirky group?
One does it one person at a time, as I did over the past few months. The results are now on this website, six dozen strong. I even did myself.
As riotously different as my colleagues are, there are telling commonalities. Very early on, many liked to draw or paint or sculpt, or make plans for the house they would occupy decades hence, or build forts with “found” lumber, or tear things apart to see how they fit together. A clear majority knew by high school that their calling in life was design.
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.
There are no car chases or gunplay, of course, in illustrated presentations on design; nonetheless, the Centerbrook Architects Lecture Series has been filling the seats now for five years. The cast has included a Nobel Laureate, an acclaimed landscape designer who thinks – no, he knows – that flowers and lawns are overrated, and a pioneering woman architect whose work appeared prominently each week on Hawaii Five-O (the original).
These sociable conclaves are not about fixing screens or creaky stairs, but rather Architecture with a capital A: major trends, design history and innovation, iconic buildings, glorious places.
Rafael Pelli talked about making skyscrapers sustainable; another architect (and author) Duo Dickinson discussed repositioning one’s humble abode for the Golden Years. Our partner emeritus, Bill Grover, mulled over color, period. A professor addressed the creative process itself: how new ideas and approaches are born and nurtured. Fear not, there were ruminations on Palladio and Gaudi, cities and parks, monuments and follies. Who knew architecture could be so much fun.
The series, which begins its sixth season this fall, is a collaboration between Centerbrook and the Essex Library and was cooked up by my wife Ann Thompson, a librarian, and myself with the support of my three partners. It quickly outgrew the library, attracting as many as 200 people. This year it is being held at the Essex Library, 33 West Avenue. It is one of the most popular of the many engaging programs that the library offers.
The success of the series indicates, I think, that there is more interest in architecture than one might assume. Nobody needs a whit of formal training to know what they like, what buildings and spaces speak to them, whether in overt or subtle ways. We all have places where we feel comfortable, where we like to work or play or just sit, places that somehow manage to take our sensibilities into account.
The reason that people are interested in architecture, I believe, is because it is an important, if often overlooked part of our lives. Studies confirm what we know intuitively: good design makes people healthier, happier, and more productive. Something as simple as natural light widely diffused inside a building can raise spirits and even academic achievement.
Architecture in this new century is also more important than ever for a very practical reason: our buildings produce more greenhouse gas emissions than do all of our cars, trucks and buses. We have to design structures that are at once appealing, efficient, and responsible. The goal is to eventually have all of our buildings “carbon neutral,” i.e. designed to be so efficient they can operate on renewable energy alone.