In our lonely quest to find architects with a sense of humor, Alex Gorlin is our best catch so far. We kept drifting off message, but that’s what we like doing best and he was really game. He is, we must add, a very serious architect – the one selected by Daniel Libeskind to design his apartment – and he has designed public spaces, including a number of synagogues as well as residences for all kinds of other ‘names’ like Grace Mirabella and Victoria Newhouse. He has commissions from all over the world, including Happy Valley aristocrats from Kenya and sheikhs from Abu Dhabi who are attracted to the quiet grace of his modernist homes. Although we’re including pictures of his Miami residence, we interviewed him in his current rental on 86th Street and he started us off with a question: So what is the theme of this interview?
We’re just chatting.
I have to be careful because apparently you don’t edit anything, right?
Well we edit very closely but we only include what we think is interesting, which is not necessarily what you think is interesting.
And then you make all sorts of snide comments … like ‘he didn’t seem very interested in talking to us’ or ‘he looks like a marmoset, or a ferret.’
Yes, very … but marmosets are beautiful. You’re talking about Garrow Kedigian aren’t you? I did say ‘beautiful little marmoset’. Don’t you think it’s true?
No, it is. Actually I just bumped into him … But you know what it is, I have a tendency to just talk and say so much and … it’s sometimes amusing but it’s always edited.
We’ve never had anyone say we’re not accurate. We’re too accurate. But let’s start with a question for you. I’m curious because you were known for doing high-end neo-Palladian villas and then you moved over to modernism in recent years – is that true?
I think at the start of my career yes – it was during the height of post-Modernism – and also I think it was what people were looking for at the time. So, I thought rather than not build anything, I would go with the flow and do the best I could. I actually was inspired by Frank Gehry. His first works were done for developers and shopping malls, which he now doesn’t show at all.
[The bell rings and Jeff comes in and somehow the conversation drifts towards someone who knows someone who recently died while having sex and we talk at some length about this being a good way to go, except, we admit, for the one left alive …]
Well, we now have to get back to the very boring subject of architecture…
Actually that does remind me. I went to the Monkey Bar, and I think I met like Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman and Oscar de la Renta and Marc Jacobs and like, everybody was there … and someone was inviting to me to the AIA Heritage Ball and I why would I want to do that? This was so much more exciting! I mean who am I going to see? James Polshek? Ooh, a Polshek sighting …
[For some unfathomable reason we seem not to be able to haul ourselves back to the subject of architecture and again drift off at some length to other ‘celebrity’ sightings including Sian’s contribution of the real, presumably elderly, Munchkins from the Wizard of Oz all together in a coffee shop …]
So anyway, back to your transition to modernism…
Well, I became bored by classicism – I mean after Michaelangelo, why bother? All these people doing traditional architecture, it’s really watered down.
It’s pastiche almost.
It’s like architectural comfort food. I won’t name names. But they know who they are. In some ways it’s better to do nothing.
But what about these architects who build these featureless bland buildings … do you think they’re proud of them?
No, they just go to the bank.
It’s interesting to me that people don’t mind living in buildings like that. It seems soulless.
Yes. But we don’t live in a visual culture. As opposed to Italy, where from the beginning there’s a value to design.
Why is that? I mean is there a mistrust of design in this country?
I think it’s changed. There’s now much more awareness than ever before from IKEA on up … but it’s like design is sort of like a frill or something.
I liked it when you said sometimes it’s better to do nothing. Your work seems to be about restraint. Is it harder to do nothing than to do something?
Yes. Oh yes. At the beginning I come up with many ideas but then I pull back and try to create a sense of order.
I have to say my sense of your buildings is that they’re much better for public spaces than private spaces.
Oh, that’s interesting. I like that perception.
These [modern] houses are not cozy.
Well, to live in a modern space requires discipline … but if one or two things are out of place, it just destroys the whole balance.
That’s my problem with it because I think that is fundamentally not what a home is about.
Well, it depends on what type of home it is … but I think traditional architecture does lend itself to absorbing people’s mess, and kind of … stuff.
But life is messy – there’s no use denying it. It’s a fundamental aspect of life.
[he laughs] Not all lives are messy.
All lives are messy.
But that’s why modern architecture never really caught on for residential architecture.
Were you a happy child?
I was a happy child.
I have to ask, why did you name the Gorlin Building in Miami after yourself?
For the record, I did not. The developer, Craig Robins, has used architecture as a marketing device for development … so anyway at some point he decided to name three towers after the architects.
And does it give you a thrill to have a building named after you.
It gives me an enormous thrill.