“Sometimes I sit here and wonder, what was he thinking?” says Douglas Wright of the well-known architect. C.C. Wendelhack who designed his lovely, quirky 1920s home in Maplewood, NJ. “I think at some point he just went, ‘Eh, let’s try it and see what happens.’” Somehow we don’t think that’s exactly Douglas Wright’s own approach to his high-end architecture practice and yet … His appreciation of the oddities (which he calls the “weird symmetries”) of his own family home speaks of a sensibility that still values charm in an architectural era full of sleek, “luxury” apartments in which no one actually appears to live. “At the end of the day it’s awfully nice to sit here with you in a comfortable setting and have some iced tea.” Well, it was.
The architect of your own house (Clifford Charles Wendelhack – most active during the 1920s) also did quite a bit of the same kind of architecture that you do—that seems somehow telling although I’m not quite sure why …
So, Wendelhack was a club architect—he did country clubs. He did Winged Foot Golf Club and I did the pool house there. I just thought wow, how much fun would it be to live in one of his houses? But when you actually live in the house by the man, you really sit here and see so much more.
So what do you see?
Well, there are all these, like, weird symmetries here. It’s a very inventive house because it’s basically a sort of center hall Dutch Pennsylvania farmhouse but he’s done this bizarre thing of adding a porch on to the front and then there are all sorts of untraditional [elements].
It’s very charming. We hate suburbia but this is gorgeous.
Well, I think that’s why we’re still here … frankly. Every three years my wife says, “Why don’t we go back to the city?” Before we lived here, we lived in Brooklyn Heights and the Cobble Hill. But we have three kids who are all very active and … even with two floors of a townhouse, it just didn’t feel like enough space.
We watched your interview on Bloomberg TV and I’m going to steal a question from that: What’s it like building and renovating houses for the 1%?
Did they actually ask me that? So I will definitely answer the question—I don’t know if you’ve done TV—but you always go through this prep beforehand so the producer can decide if they even want to have you on the program. So all of the questions were not anything like this … and then I’m sitting there thinking, this isn’t what they were going to ask me. But … building and designing for the 1% is no different than working for anyone except that they basically can do almost anything. Everybody has the same wishes and desires but the natural constraints on [the 1%] are far smaller.
In a way can constraints make for creative solutions?
They can be very creative but when a billionaire tells you that they want an Olympic pool with a spa at the end and an infinity edge with a waterfall towards the ocean … that’s out of the reach of most people or when somebody tells you that they want a lead-lined bedroom with triple-paned windows so that they can go in there and work and not hear a single sound.
Um … a lead-lined bedroom … that sounds weird.
Well, it’s a great place to work, I guess. What’s fascinating about this is that it’s kind of like when you’re reading a great story and the novelist has an unexpected turn in the story. And here, because someone has an idea like this and because there is a budget, I can do it.
I don’t know how much work you do in the city but what do you think of these huge luxury apartment buildings going up all over New York, what seems to me to be the “Dubai-ification” of the skyline. Have there been technological advances that allow for these extremely tall residential buildings?
The zoning is really the main thing that has changed and allowed for these buildings—and Manhattan is the ideal place to build tall buildings because of the bedrock. When you look at the skyline, that’s why you see the tall area around Wall Street and then you see that low, low section and then they start up again at 34th and 42nd Streets because the bedrock schist underneath dips down in Midtown.
When I was reading about these tall buildings, I came across a job I’d never heard of: “shadow consultant”. Have you worked with a shadow consultant?
I don’t know what a shadow consultant does.
They measure and predict the shadows that will be cast by these buildings.
Oh! I thought you meant a behind-the-scenes publicist or something! We do shadow studies all the time. That’s one of the great things about Google. We’re able to locate our house and then run the sunlight patterns and see how it’s going to look in spring, summer and fall.
Why are interiors these days so empty? There’s no sense that anyone lives there at all.
I think you’ve hit on a very profound question. I will venture an answer. I think it is—and I’ve thought about it a lot—I think it’s because it allows people to project anything on to it. If it has very little content, it’s difficult to criticize for actually standing for anything, do you know what I’m saying? It’s very, very safe.
Do some people think of it as tranquil? This “hotel look” is perhaps somehow oddly comforting.
Ironically I think [with] all the travel that people are doing, when they get home, it actually feels familiar.
You seem unusually interested in interiors—somehow over the years we have the sense that some architects feel interior design is a little beneath them.
At the end of the day it’s awfully nice to sit here with you in a comfortable setting and have some ice tea.
You’d be surprised how many places we’ve been that belong to interior designers and there is no real area in which we could sit and have a conversation. We have to move the furniture around so that we can sit and talk together.
Really? Well, I chalk up [an emphasis on comfort] to Albert Hadley and Sister Parish because there were so many times when we would get a plan and Mr. Hadley would say, “I can’t fit a sofa in here” or “There’s no place for conversation.”
How did you get to work for Albert Hadley?
So I graduated in the recession of the ’80s and no architects were hiring. At the time I thought, this is awful, I’m going to work for an interior designer. But it was actually great because all of my architecture friends were doing things like fire stairs or aligning tiles in service baths. And here I was, working in the field with craftsmen, wood carvers and furniture makers. I designed a lattice room based on this John Russell Pope house … extraordinary stuff. I’m still doing work for some of the clients.
I read that in one project you used what you called “gentle materials”. What are gentle materials?
Gentle materials are natural products that age [well]. So, like on the house to which you are referring, we used cedar. The horizontal sunshades are cedar—they’ll start out that warm reddish color and they’ll gradually go more silvery. Some of the metals are going to oxidize over time. It’s kind of like Richard Serra’s sculptures. There’s a warmth to them. You would think that steel is a very frightening material—there’s a power to those sculptures—but I find them very warm and inviting. That’s more of what I mean by gentle materials.
So you mentioned earlier about “challenging” questions from building authorities and historic review boards. What sort of questions are those?
Oh … you know: “Why are you going to paint the shutters blue?”
So you end up in absurd conversations?
Look, the thing I always do say is that the people on boards have a genuine desire to keep their communities beautiful, they really do. And these boards would not exist had architects not desecrated these beautiful locations. So whenever I get into these maddening conversations that’s what I tell myself. It all happened in the ’60s and ’70s—it started with the destruction of Penn Station. It’s astonishing to think that people thought what is there now was preferable.
What kinds of books do you read?
Oh my God, I read so much. I’m reading a new translation of The Iliad by Peter Green—I’m so excited. I’ve read, like, the first four pages. I don’t know … I read a lot of stuff about the universe and cosmology. My favorite moment in all of those books is towards the end, almost all of them have a chapter where they say “as much as I understand the universe, I don’t understand consciousness.” What I love about it, is that all of them arrive at that point … it’s just like, “Well, I dunno.”
Why does cosmology interest you?
I think it’s because the answers are so difficult …
Maybe they like ugly white brick buildings in another universe.
I’m not going to be buying a ticket to that planet!