Patrick Gerard Carmody grew up steeped in the history of one of Louisiana’s fabled families, the Aime family. In the 19th century, Francois-Gabriel “Valcour” Aime, Patrick’s great, great, great grandfather, owned an enormously lucrative sugar plantation and a refinery that made them the wealthiest family in the state. Not surprisingly, “Vacherie”, the house he built and the grounds he had landscaped were so lavish that in the 20th century, it became known as “La Petite Versailles”. As is so often the way with such families, tragedy broke it apart. No wonder then, that such a history has influenced Patrick’s work as an architect.
He is one of these people that seems to be good at a lot of things—he paints, has been a horseback riding instructor, played tennis well enough to be accepted on to his college tennis team and has written three novels that were taken seriously enough to get him an agent at the renowned agency, Curtis Brown. He answered so many questions with fascinating (and true) stories that we have, unusually, decided to include a selection of “short stories” at the end of the interview because they don’t really fit into our Q&A format. Let’s hope they inspire him to get his writing into print.
So we love the way everything here looks very classical but you have the textiles incorporated into it—and these very modern remote-controlled blinds. Aren’t you a bit worried that the blinds might go wrong? Technology is great until it breaks—and then it’s expensive.
It hasn’t happened yet. I love having a music system and I love being able to control the shades. And I’m really glad I’ve got air conditioning. When that hurricane [Sandy] came through, I never thought it would be that big of a deal, here especially. We lost all our power for about a week. It was pitch black, I mean you had to have a flashlight to get along the sidewalk. The lady upstairs was cooking in her fireplace and it was cold and when you went outside, you saw your neighbors, you know, with their hair unwashed … it reminded me of summer camp. After five days, just those few days, it felt like such a luxury when the power came back on!
So you’re from the South and you have French roots. Did you learn any of that fabulous Louisiana French?
I did but I don’t really remember it.
Was architecture something you knew you were going to do?
Yes, always. I think it was just the idea of making a perfect home. Homes were a big part of my family forever.
In what way? Did you grow up in a grand Southern house?
I’m from a very big family—there were eight children, four boys and four girls. So we had a 1920s Georgian house that was big enough for us all.
What’s it like growing up with all those brothers and sisters?
Well I loved it. As a dynamic it’s like growing up in a community and anything that is like a community completely resonates with me, whether it’s summer camp or when I was in college I went on an archeological expedition in Rome. I loved that—and that was also every summer with the same people. To me that was just great. We had a ball!
So you’d be fine in a commune?
Er … I don’t know about that. I would have to have my identity. Like in my house, I could go into my own room and do my own creative stuff … but then I could always open the door and there would be all sorts of activity.
When you got to architecture school, was it what you thought it would be?
That’s actually a good question you know, because I guess I always wanted to be an architect and I was so excited about it but then I was intimidated when I got there because it everyone seemed like such a brain. I kind of did whatever [the professors] said. I was also doing some writing and I double majored in fine art and architecture … like that’s my painting over there …
Wow. You actually do know how to paint!
Yeah, I do.
But architecture won out, did it?
I got to Rice, you know, the first thing the other students ask is, “What were your SAT scores?” And everyone else had better ones than I did. I was accepted to join the college tennis team but the professor just said that no one did that and I couldn’t be on the team as well as all the work. After that, I started to doubt myself and my own response to an architectural problem. But I didn’t do this with the painting—something came from the gut and I could just create. In architecture, I started to second guess myself and I would do something kind of cerebral. I got to the point where I was so unhappy that I began to think maybe I should do something else even though this was what I thought I always wanted to do. I was doing okay but I thought if I’m going to do so much work, then I’m going to do what I want to do. If no one else likes it, at least I will. And when I made that decision and started following my intuition—I don’t want to sound conceited—suddenly I became like the star.
Very interesting. We perhaps get coached out of trusting our intuition.
It is a tricky thing because you do need to learn technical things too. It’s a merging of the two things.
What was working life like after the fun of being in Rome?
Well, it was a bit of a shock. I was doing this, like corporate work [an internship], the same thing over and over … I just got through the minimum period—I think it was nine months … [some time after] I went off to be a horseback riding instructor!
That must have been a kind of rebellion! You mentioned that you were writing at college—what sort of things were you writing?
I was writing fiction. I’d love to get back into that. I got as far as getting an agent, with Curtis Brown and people said if you’re with Curtis Brown, you’re going to get your book published. At that point my architecture career superseded it. The book did not get published and in some ways I’m glad because I think I could do better.
You sound like someone who is just good at everything: art, architecture, writing, tennis, horse riding …
Well, I don’t know about that. They’re things that I really enjoy doing. I’m a Gemini—it means I’m better balanced if I can have more than one thing to do.
Patrick’s True Stories:
The Portrait of Gabriel Aime
This is a painting of Gabriel Aime, Francois-Gabriel “Valcour” Aime’s son. He was like the favorite son in the Aime family, which [in the 19th century] was perhaps the wealthiest family in Louisiana. They owned the plantation, “Vacherie” [also known as “La Petite Versailles”] and it had one of the most amazing gardens ever made in this country. Gabriel was educated in France and when he was 28, he had gone on the Grand Tour but when he returned he spent one night in New Orleans where he got yellow fever. Anyway when he returned to the family home, he died. That was the home which in particular that inspired me when I was a child because the house and the gardens were like a Camelot type of thing. We used to go and have family picnics in the grounds even thought the house was in ruins. Gabriel’s [who the family called Gabby] death really caused a lot of unraveling. Valcour Aime’s wife and youngest daughter died soon after. Valcour became a recluse and turned to prayer and meditation to get over all of this. So the portrait of Gabriel Aime was in my grandparents’ house and when I was growing up, people were always saying that I looked like him. His eyes follow you! I would go into the shadowy room, I would think he was almost alive and I was petrified! And I thought that when I turned 28, I was going to die! I was so happy when I turned 29.
I have a painted clock that doesn’t work in this cabinet here. And Gabby Aime, when he was in Europe, sent it to his parents as a New Year’s present. The Civil War happened and Valcour Aime and his wife were not interested in fighting. They even went to Abraham Lincoln to say that we do not have to go to war. Anyway, Louisiana was one of the first places to go. They buried everything in these five cases and dug it all up again after the war was over. That clock was one of the things they buried because it was really special. I inherited it and you can even feel in the porcelain cracks a kind of mud but wait … it gets more weird. So I have the clock and it’s never worked. A few years passed and the portrait arrives and I put it up. I’m with my colleague and we go into another room … all of a sudden the clock starts chiming. We’re looking at each other and we’re like “Oh my God, it’s Gabby’s clock!” If I had been alone, I would have thought, “This hasn’t happened—I made it up.”
“40 5th Avenue”
I actually wrote three novels. Each one got closer and closer to getting somewhere. It was the last one that ended up being pitched for a screenplay. It was about a house—which was actually one of the main characters—like the house in “Rebecca”.
But the premise of the second book—and this is sort of uncanny—was that there was an architecture firm where this young guy and girl in a romantic relationship were working and the firm gets a call from this lady whose name is Katherine. She had bought the penthouse—I’ve never gone on 40 Fifth Avenue—but she has bought the penthouse on 40 5th Avenue and wants to renovate it. She’s found these old, old plans, they’re all like, frayed and she wants to replicate the interior of the penthouse to match. She wants to hire the male architect in particular. She has a big budget. So they send him off to the penthouse. But from the beginning there is this odd-ness about it that the girl is picking up on. The woman, Katherine, quickly separates them and gets the guy to leave the firm. In the girl’s life everything is going to hell and she knows it’s because of Katherine. She goes to New Orleans to try to find out about the mystery of all this. So that’s the premise of the book. So anyway, cut to several years later, I’m in the office and we get this phone call. I answer the phone and it’s this woman who owns the penthouse on 40 5th Avenue and she says she’d like to come and meet me to interview me … so I went over there and it was just how I imagined it in the book.