Don and Gaby Rattner live in an elegant house in Brooklyn Heights, which they have furnished almost exclusively with antiques, old paintings and a few custom pieces. Although it does not come across as any kind of statement, it is evidence of Don’s essentially traditional approach to architecture and respect for the best of the past, at least from a design point of view. He is scholarly, a little earnest, and like quite a few of the architects we interview, slightly anxious about revealing that he has a sense of humor. Why are they all so scared of making jokes? Well, he did loosen up and it was a pleasure to interview someone who, although firmly in the traditional camp, has a reasonable and humane attitude to making buildings on a human scale for today’s clientele.
I am very interested in something I read on your website, it was an article that you had written, and in it you point out that 90 per cent of the buildings in this country are built without the involvement of design professionals.
It’s true, it’s true.
What lies behind that?
Well I think it’s always been that way to a certain extent. Paying for an architect’s services, an interior designer’s service is a premium in a sense because technically, physically you can put up a building and decorate a home and you can do any of those things without a professional.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing. Most of the world is built without a design professional and it’s not all ugly, an Italian village, for example.
True, but there I think it was inherent in the culture with the crafts people and the tradition and so forth. Today we have lost that core knowledge, it’s kind of dissipated. But I think you’re right. I mean you go back to these neighborhoods from the 1910s and this area … a lot of it is built without architects and look at the quality.
How would you characterize that cultural environment?
I think in the changeover, from, call it tradition-bound design to modernism, it became top down, so that the intellectual designer said: ‘here’s how it’s going to be’ rather than from the bottom up, where they could meet in a happy way in the middle.
I was looking at this pink house just opposite you on this elegant brownstone street and wondering where do you draw the line between people doing their own thing and historic preservation?
It’s a line that’s being fought over all the time … my views have kind of evolved to the point where it doesn’t matter if it’s modern or traditional, so much as is it good design or bad design? The real question is how you create that quality level in the first place.
Isn’t it a sign of vigor, a sign of life, when people add things or paint their house pink?
No question. But something on a street, it’s more than just about yourself, it’s also about the public and your neighbors.
So how do you feel about the pink building?
We love the pink building! What’s really wonderful is that they have a tree in front that flowers pink flowers, in the spring. When I got here I said: ‘Why is that building pink?’ and when that tree bloomed, I thought: ‘Oh, it’s perfect.’
Do you think that the tension between Classicism and Modernism is good for architecture, something that is necessary and was lacking before Modernism came along?
Well what would be interesting to know is to see if the two can come together in some way. Can you synthesize? For me what is so wonderful about Classical/traditional is that it’s humanist, it’s kind of based on people. It’s not an abstract idea about language or building. I’d like to see them in some way merge together.
Are there any examples of that synthesis that come to mind? How about in Manhattan, like 15 Central Park West?
The Stern building? It’s kind of pre-War in a post-War manner … it’s very competent. It’s not reached a new language or a new way of looking at things … it’s just kind of a reasonably fresh take on traditional architecture.
How generous are architects about each other’s work?
Oh terrible! It’s unbelievably competitive [laughs] … there is a lot of that going around, I suppose. But I don’t think about that.
Are you jealous ever?
I don’t know, I’m asking.
No, I’m not jealous of anybody [laughs].
How about when you see something incredible and you aspire to it?
Well, I’m positively inspired by it!
By who or what?
Um … in the traditional camp or the modern camp? Nobody comes immediately to mind but give me a moment, I’m sure someone will pop there. [later he sends a very long, scholarly email on the subject, citing examples such as Art Deco style, Jose Plecnik, Frank Lloyd Wright and Geoffrey Bawa, amongst others.]
How do you structure your day?
My day doesn’t really have structure. It’s really quite … er, a random assortment of actions, I would say! But seriously, you’re kind of moving from activity to activity in relatively rapid order … yes you could sit down and devote two hours to a particular project or task but really over the course of the day, in a somewhat unpredictable manner, you’ve got a lot of balls in the air. You’ll have to catch them in whatever order seems to make sense that day.
Do you find that because your work incorporates classical elements and embraces the traditional, that you have to fend off being called a romantic?
[laughs] Oh yes! Well, you know those arrows have been flung years ago and at a certain point you’ve developed your response to them.
What is your response?
Well, it depends when you ask me that. Ten years ago it might have been one response, and today, it’s a different response in the sense that now I’m a little more … what shall we say? Ecumenical, perhaps? To me, look, if somebody enjoys this and wants this, who could possibly sit there and attempt to deny them that?
It seems to me that the Ford Plantation project was most Americans’ ideal to live in because it was new, everything works, they can have their flat-screen TVs and they can also have the crown moldings.
I think that’s probably still the case. There have been surveys and they have found that about two-thirds tend to prefer in the broad category of traditional design … I think that’s probably going to shift over the years, I think, as a young generation brought up in this very design-driven world, starts to come up and take over.
In one of your essays you talked about the self-image of the architect and it was interesting that you invoked godlike Howard Roark, the architect/main character of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead …
It’s probably more apropos than ever in this age of the ‘starchitect’ … it’s taken on its most powerful realization. I mean that goes back to starting in the 19th century when the artist became this elevated figure, somewhat removed from the haute bourgeoisie, that the artist creates from within, it’s all the individual and really the architect is seen as the master builder … and the reality is that it’s really a team effort.
What do you put it down to, your broadening, your more ecumenical approach? When you first started out, were you stubbornly going to do traditional work only?
Focused, I think is the word. Now … maybe it’s just normal evolution … there are things happening out in the world that makes it a little more difficult to be so categorical about it.
Do we get mellower as we get older?
Yes. It’s a horrible thing!