By Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge Photographs by Jeff Hirsch
Dennis Wedlick is a prime example of how one small but crucial thing can lead to a whole career. While working as a lowly intern for Philip Johnson and invited to attend the firm’s annual picnic at the Glass House, he went over to the great man and pointed out that all Johnson’s drawings were moldering in boxes and deserved to be properly archived. He was given the job and as a result got to know Johnson very well. At a young age, he wound up running large teams that were designing and building skyscrapers for the firm. He now has is own firm, Barlis Wedlick Architects where he works mainly on residential projects where his focus, he says, is on the importance of some kind of narrative necessary to give the design real meaning.
I read that you’re a self-described romantic … what does that mean?
In architecture it means that I like to pursue designs that have meaning, that are based on narratives. It’s not any particular style I pursue. I like to create buildings from stories—so that’s a very picturesque way of working.
Can you give us some examples?
Oh, yeah. One couple came to me and wanted me to build a modern home for them in Michigan and brought in all images of moderns homes. Yet before they finished describing what they liked, she told the story of growing up on a plantation in North Carolina, the Milford Plantation, a very famous Greek Revival plantation. She was just so passionate about that. Her family lost it and she was [now] building her own farm home for her family. I came back to them with a home and the entire design was based on the Milford Plantation … I just took a chance. It was modern translation but all the details were taken from the same pattern book. When she saw it, she started crying. I love that. There is a reason to look back, when it has meaning.
A view into the study. The white ottoman from Blu Dot stands in front of a couch from Mitchell Gold. The black 'Taburet M' stacking stool designed by Jorgen Moller is from Design Within Reach.
In the study two separate pieces of a CR42 teak cabinet by Cees Braakman for Pastoe from R 20th Century Design were joined together to create this mid-century wall unit. The landscape paintings hanging above the cabinet are by Harry Orlyk from Carrie Haddad gallery in Hudson and the black ceramic vases are by Jonathan Adler.
Wouldn’t all architects claim at some level that their buildings are about story?
Well Modernists, they’re about the land—which is a story in itself, but not a personal story. It’s about the universal appeal of architecture.
I read a quote that your buildings contain “extraordinary amounts of poetry.” Do you read poetry by any chance?
[Laughs] No … I don’t read poetry. It’s a compliment to me but I do feel that I translate the poetry that people bring to me.
Peeking into the master bedroom.
A round mirror from Crate and Barrel hangs above a bed frame and linens from Flo in Soho. The table lamps and bedside tables are from Crate and Barrel, the bench is Jonathan Adler.
Telescopic views are always an option.
Spectacular views of downtown Manhattan, Brooklyn and New York Harbor can be seen from all windows of the apartment.
I read another piece where you decided against placing the house in the originally designated site and went wandering around the property until you found the “right” spot. What was it that made you do that?
Well that’s the other person in the room – the land. To find that “person” is what I do. Not to sound too … you know … well, there is an energy from land. There’s generally history from land. And spirits. There are spirits in land. It’s the one part of my process that I feel is very pretentious, you know when I do that … it looks new-agey but I do walk the land and I do look for the spot that the land wants to offer.
On the whole do most people agree, when you find that spot?
Most times they do.
What is it that you’re feeling when you find it?
An energy. I don’t know if there’s any science behind [it] but you know water that is clean has a more vibrant energy than water that is stagnant, but land is like that.
The open kitchen island has a base cabinet made out of bamboo with a countertop of tumbled black granite.
In the far corner, A Gio Ponti walnut-and-brass dining table is surrounded by Knoll chairs from R 20th Century Design. The floor lamp is from Design Within Reach.
From left: two photos from Venice, a lithograph from France and on the far right a lithograph by New York artist Tom Slaughter.
Well, nearly all cultures have natural places that are considered sacred for one reason or another, land being sacred in some way.
Yes. Often I pick challenging spots that are rocky and barren, but that’s where it should be.
What do you do when there’s no land involved, like an apartment building in New York?
I look for light. I look for the sky. The city has a lot of unusual ways of relating to sky and light.
If you could build a new kind of city, what would it look like?
It would be a city made of wood. It could be sustainable and there are so many ways to treat wood now—it can be as strong as steel.
An oversized mirror from ABC Carpet opens up the main living space. Floor lamps from Restoration Hardware flank a custom sofa.
Looking across the seating, a flat screen TV stands atop a console by Harvey Probber, ca. 1954 from Donzella. The wall art is by artist Tom Slaughter.
What did you learn from Philip Johnson?
To listen. If anybody brought anything to him, he gave it a lot of thought.
I was interested in something you said about “the symbiotic relationship between a house and garden.” How do you make it so that the outdoors and the indoors flow into each other?
It’s all about the foundation. Everything you design from the first floor down is what is going to make a difference about whether it can blend. If you look at the way it meets the ground, that’s the trick.
[With ] modern designs, they raise it off the ground. So that is the difference between Philip Johnson’s Glass House and the Farnsworth House [by Mies van der Rohe]. The Glass House has a foundation and the Farnsworth House does not and that is because Philip Johnson fancied himself a landscape architect. Mies was focused much more on the building. You know they ripped out Philip Johnson’s MoMA garden—that’s a sin. It was a jewel. He would never have fought it though.
The impression he gave was that he was egocentric, but he really wasn’t.
A pair of binoculars stands atop a stack of books, including one by client Marina Abramovic.
Lovely blue hydrangeas perk up a round glass and lacquer coffee table.
As you may or may not know, we can be rather rude about architects in this column. Sometimes we find them a bit priestly, too cerebral … but you’re here talking about organic, spiritual stuff and architects with no ego …
Unfortunately it’s their training.
Why is that? Why does their training turn them out as ascetic purists?
Well, [at a school of architecture] it’s one big, long hazing process. They’re set up so that you start out with 150 [students] and you end with 50 [students]. Or they’re set up where they want the competition to drive the excellence. You’re required to present your ideas as arguments. You end up kind of like a lawyer at the end.
Where did you go? How did you hold up?
I went to Syracuse. I was a bit rebellious. I did well in the first half because the first half was more of the classic training but then I did poorly later on because I didn’t work as well with that kind of combative style. I’m not very combative.
A pair of comfortable leather bars from Crate and Barrel in the open kitchen.
Handsome bamboo kitchen cabinets make use of sustainable materials.
Floor-to-ceiling windows infuse the entire open living space with light. The elegant console table is from Blu Dot.
A Gio Ponti walnut-and-brass dining table is surrounded by Knoll chairs from R 20th Century Design. The floor lamp is from Design Within Reach.
Another look at the spectacular downtown views surrounding the main living space.
And yet you have your own architecture firm in New York city … you must have something!
Well, I attribute a lot of that to Philip Johnson. He really knew how to run a firm. He taught me where to put the time. Johnson taught us that we’re a service industry. I really wanted a firm, not just to be Dennis Wedlick on my own. And now it’s Barlis Wedlick Architects.
How about giving orders? What do you draw on when you’re running a team?
I would say … wanting to be loved. [Laughs]. I’m not good at conflict … I’m very good at telling people it’s time to move on because I don’t see that as a conflict … because I’m feeling good about that decision.
The Freedom Tower, still waiting for completion.
“Time to move on” … is that a euphemism for firing someone?
If you were firing me, it would have taken me twenty minutes to figure it out …
That’s my trick … most people thank me at the end of it!