Monday, February 6, 2017
The annoying staccato rhythm emanating from the telephone brought me out of a panic driven daydream. I don’t know how long the handset had been locked in the vise-grip of my left hand. I don’t know how long I had been blankly staring at the wall in my office. All I knew was that Antoine Predock, FAIA, was coming to town and I had been invited to accompany him all day. Never mind the office, never mind the deadlines, never mind the anxiety. This was a very, very good thing.
Now somewhere between the realm of idolatry and obsession lies sincere, unabated hero worship. I had revered Predock’s work from afar since he first visited Clemson University while I was a graduate student twelve years ago. Since that time, he has escaped his southwestern regionalist moniker and was now competing for work on a world-wide scale against the likes of Gehry, Pelli, Stern and Mayne. To be granted a semi-private conversation with the great American Architects, past or present, is either the stuff of dreams or hirings and firings. But unlike Frank Lloyd Wright and his Taliesin apprentices, I did not have to pay “tuition” to obtain an audience with this talented architect. This “joyride” was actually a very fortuitous byproduct of the Kids in Architecture Program.
The Kids in Architecture program was developed as a themed program for elementary schools to rival the attraction (no pun intended) of magnet schools. Summit Drive Elementary School in Greenville, SC has adopted architecture as its school-wide theme. Designed to serve as the central “hub” with other elementary schools in the area serving as the “spokes, ” these first through fifth graders are regularly exposed to architectural related topics such as shapes, materials and buildings. Clay Gandy AIA, an architect with Batson Architects, has developed a partnering association between Clemson University’s School of Architecture, the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities and Summit Drive Elementary. Mr. Gandy’s resourcefulness, adamant persistence and AIA Greenville sponsorships have created today’s scenario, bringing Antoine Predock from New Mexico to South Carolina.
His resume speaks volumes about his academic credentials. He received a Bachelor of Architecture from Columbia University in 1962, won the Rome Prize in 1985, became a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects in 1981, a visiting critic at SCI-ARC and Harvard and was the first Robert Mills Distinguished Professor at Clemson University in 1995.
Until his meteoric rise to national prominence in the late 1980’s, he may have been the southwest’s best-kept secret, but he was hardly the overnight success that some might believe. Predock opened his own practice in Albuquerque in 1967, and has been winning local, state or national AIA awards since 1970. He has been in the Record Houses issue of Architectural Record seven times since 1970 and over 45 books on architecture have featured his work. He has also been featured in 35 articles in Architectural Record since 1970 as well as 25 articles in the now defunct Progressive Architecture between 1974 and 1995.
The more I thought about it, the more difficult it was to not become intimidated. What should I ask him? Should I speak to Predock the designer, or Predock the philosopher? No, I’ll start with the basics. Besides, I was not going to try to pretend to be an architectural critic. This author had no sycophantic intentions, just sincere admiration for Predock’s work. His concept of the "roadcut," the summation of the intangible qualities of place that are explored through a multi-disciplinary investigation of the literature, art, culture, geology and history of the site are very intriguing as a programming or research tool. I am a fellow practitioner and would like to better understand the elements of Antoine Predock’s “roadcut.” So I decided to start at the beginning.
Predock opened his studio in Albuquerque in 1967, followed by a second studio in Los Angeles in 1988. It was refreshing to find, in his first book by Rizzoli, he had given recognition, by name, to his employees over the previous 30 years. This selfless act documents his ability to recognize the talents of the collective, acknowledging that he has worked with “a lot of gifted and talented people.”
This reliance on good people may be one of the keys to his strength as an architectural powerhouse. His time is now split evenly between Los Angeles, Albuquerque and the airlines. He had come to the upstate, leaving his office during a rigorous charette for a new design competition. Never out of touch with his staff for more than two hours at any given time, regular phone calls were made throughout the day to check the design progress. Losing a design competition is something he takes to heart. Although Predock regularly makes short lists for architect selection, he is careful not to staff up just for one project. He instead prefers to form associations with firms for additional manpower when needed.
The influences of Louis Kahn, Frank Lloyd Wright and Jose Luis Sert on Predock’s career are well documented, however one cannot help acknowledge the corresponding reverence for light and shadow in his work and that of Tadao Ando. “He is an architect that I totally admire. One day I was in Albuquerque. My house is next to my studio. I was told there was a Japanese architect that was at my office and wanted to visit…..No one had called or anything, they just showed up. So I said Oh, OK…and it was Tadao Ando! So he and I became friends.”
One surprise revelation was in discovering a “non-influence.” It seemed too obvious, in light of Predock’s celebration of earth and sky, that he would have been a long time patron of the writings of Martin Heidegger and the fourfold (earth and sky, divinities and mortals). Not so. “Did you see my book by Academy editions, by Geoffrey Baker?” replied Predock when quizzed. “Geoffrey Baker was a Heideggerian, and he made this Heideggerian extrapolation to my work. I had never studied Heidegger at all. Through Baker I got the message of the fourfold. I kind of buy into his interpretations but I never, never would have done anything conscious because I didn’t know that much about him. Pretty fascinating because a lot of it is dead-on.”
Resisting the temptation to retreat to Chris Farley style questioning (e.g., Do you remember that time when you designed that building…. that was great….), there was an unanswered issue that had been addressed when I first met Predock 12 years earlier at Clemson University. Since by trade and education, architects are party to the highbrow or elite culture, and yet Predock had masterfully designed buildings that were either part of or respectful to popular culture. He has even been known to cite references to the writings of Marshall McLuhan. Can this duality be an undeniable struggle on a philosophical battlefield?
“One difficulty is the temporality of the populist….. but it is the strength of the architecture that I want to tap into. The ephemeral interests me very much but at the same time the architecture I create has a deeper mandate. That is why I like to talk about the highway roadcut. John McPhee the author from Princeton, understood this cultural stratigraphy. You look at a highway roadcut, the pre-Cambrian granite and the sedimentary strata in relation to the cultural episode, which is just a thin film, it’s nothing. So what I can’t stand is when someone says, ‘why can’t your building look like the building next door’, well so what? It’s just a temporary thing. I like to look at that deep thing, that power, rather than a mental style. It is just an obsession with me, I am really interested in the underpinning. I am a movie freak. I love weird things that are happening in neighborhoods. I let the cultural thing come through. It’s not like I prioritize it, but it’s there.”
“The Santa Fe Hotel was an internal struggle since I was working with Disney. They typically just want to give people one-liners but I wanted to investigate something deeper. Look at (the 1984 film) Paris Texas or any of Wim Wender’s work. That is a way of seeing the west and Michael Eisner let me explore it with the Santa Fe hotel (Hotel Santa Fe Euro Disney, Paris, 1992).”
His popular culture interests are about as varied as his building types. Although a quasi-celebrity himself, he is unable to hide the excitement in discussing the 1998 film Gattaca. Not just because his Classroom/Laboratory/Administration Building at Cal Poly in Pomona California, shared the silver screen with Frank Lloyd Wright’s Marin County Civic Center in this science fiction thriller, but that screen siren UmaThurman was “cruising around” his building. He gets equally enthusiastic upon learning of the presence of the cable channel Speed-vision for the opportunity to view re-runs of the black and white documentary based on Hunter S. Thompson's 1966 non-fiction novel, Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga.
This affinity with cinema is not to suggest Predock has “gone Hollywood.” Not in the least. He did open a studio in Los Angeles in 1988, which he maintains with a staff of four. One of his first projects out of that office was the Venice House. Initially unassuming in program, this 30’ x 90’ shotgun house is one of three of his projects featured in the Whitney Guide to 20th Century American Architecture, as well as gracing THE book jacket in living color. The house is located, literally, at ground zero of the “cultural zoo” of Venice Beach, California. But rather than succumb to the all too common gravitational pull towards hipness, Predock chose to design a structure that was timeless.
Predock reminisces: “…. I got to live in it for a month as part of the contract. Now, here is this huge red 13’ high pivot window……I opened it one Sunday morning, and there were these rubberneckers out there always looking in and they applauded! It was like the act of opening a window was theater….. Eric Saarinen, (Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen’s grandson and Eero Saarinen’s son) lives there now with his wife ……it’s in good hands.”
His intensity can be daunting. A snapshot of the day’s events that best expresses this quality shows Predock in the front passenger seat of a sedan traveling 70 mph towards Clemson University, furiously rearranging two carousels of slides, simultaneously, while eating a sandwich and carrying on a conversation with Virginia Uldrick, President of the SC Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities.
But how does a visionary talent such as this mystic man of New Mexico, who frequently espouses commentary such as “Architecture is a fascinating journey toward the unexpected,” relate to the rest of the architectural profession where ordinary individuals are busy drafting flashing details or calculating egress width requirements ?
“I have been in the trenches, I worked my way through school doing full projects as a junior….By myself……. I mean it wasn’t anything huge, but I just had that ethic from the very beginning.” Conversational tidbits throughout the day substantiate his claim. He spoke of the “ancient” talent of rolling a Number 2 pencil in order to keep the point sharp while drafting, the perils of ink blobs falling out of a ruling pen attached to a beam compass or the frustrating experience of shirt sleeve buttons being captured in a “spi-roll.” We even developed a bond by discovering our mutual hatred for plastic lead on mylar and the awful smell of eradicator fluid on sepias. Louis Batson AIA, a principal with Batson Architects, also helped fuel the nostalgic moment as the two seasoned principals recanted tales of T-squares, eraser powder bags, ruling pens and sandpaper pencil pointers.
He laughs about the fact, almost self mockingly, that the last time he visited Clemson he did not know how to turn a computer on. Losing his computer virginity only a month ago, he now proudly flaunts cyber buzz words, promotes his URL address (www.predock.com) and unabashedly pedals his on-line wares (The Pantheon wrist watch, the Vincent Black Lightning Wall Clock, and the soon to be released Stealth Cookie Jar) to the audiences at his three KIA presentations throughout the day. He has even found the World Wide Web to be a double edge sword for a self-proclaimed information junkie that devours everything in sight. “ I am now cruising websites” he admits, “but I can’t tell where the boundaries are…. I don’t know where to stop finding stuff out.”
The computer generated renderings of his Gateway Alumni Center at the University of Minnesota are testimony that he has come to embrace the machine as an asset to his practice for production, presentations and competitions, but he has one major ax to grind: an unabashed aversion for computer fonts that mimic hand lettering. Faithful to his craft, study models, brush pen and pastels will always be prevalent in his repertoire.
Perhaps it is the summary essence of sensitive artist, talented craftsman, and cultural observer that is the “roadcut” of Antoine Predock. A seven hour visit revealed how multifariously complex his interests and personality can be. For example, he does get disappointed when he does not win a competition. He is proud of the work of his sons. He is eager to discuss his two grandchildren and “doggie” (of which he has emblazoned on his website). He is amazed at the size of Palmetto bugs (someone had mailed him one from Charleston.) His first question upon arriving at the newly opened SC Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities was “what is the cost per square foot?” He is a Stan Musial bred but San Diego Padre born again baseball fan. He is humble. And perhaps the most telling of all: He sacrificed a day away from his office during a design charette in order to help the Kids in Architecture Program………..
Posted by Rick Bynum, AIA