Peter Pennoyer’s work as an architect is firmly rooted in respect for classicism and tradition, designing as he does graceful, homes that acknowledge and incorporate our cultural connections to historical precedent. His office space combined antiques and the highest of high tech. His employees were as so many modern monks, meticulously working at their screen equivalents of illuminated manuscripts. (They seemed very happy.) Peter himself is quiet-spoken, clear-headed and gentlemanly without any affectation. He delights in language too, so it was a real pleasure to go back and listen to the tape of our interview with him – we listened and we learned.
We wanted to start off talking about the manuscript that you are currently working concerning the fall of American architecture: ‘From Monticello to McMansion’ …
It’s not going to be a very scholarly book, just chapters that are little vignettes, windows into what’s happening. The one that is most amazing is the story of façades made out of Styrofoam … cornices, moldings, doorframes, columns and it is exactly the same Styrofoam that you see as coolers, the kind they sell at gas stations. Most of the factories wouldn’t talk to us but we finally found someone who so believed in this that they gave us a day-long tour. They put in on to a metal frame and bolt it to the front of the building then paint it or spray it with synthetic paint which they try pass off as stucco. You see it all over … every Walgreens, every strip mall, every Brooks Brothers. It’s Las Vegas.
Is there anything redeeming about it? Lots of people love Las Vegas.
I think its best use is probably theme park or Las Vegas where you’re trying to create extravagant ‘scenography’, which no one expects is actually real. They’ve been doing it for years.
So what will you be saying about this shift from a place like Monticello where there is so much craftsmanship, to Styrofoam houses?
Well one of the things that is fascinating about Monticello is how beautifully we built our country before we had many sources to go to. From 1790 to probably 1870 there were only 180 architectural books published in America, period. You know Jefferson as an architect had a book that he bought in Paris, which was a 17th century edition of Vitruvius and he brought it back to Virginia. He found a cornice and he copied that, and he cribbed other ideas, interpreted other ideas that can be found directly in the plates of that book and he made a house that is still very American, very simple and very complex at the same time. They had so little to go on but the architecture is very sophisticated. Now compare it to what we see when we have infinite libraries and resources and yet the architecture is so …kind of illiterate.
What kind of narrative are we writing ourselves into when we buy these huge McMansions?
Well, this is a whole other interview but if you were really to talk about this I would have to bring up the website of one of the most successful McMansion builders who is called the Dream Maker and every model he has …I can’t parody it because it’s too hilarious, but every model has a little story. It will say [puts on a campy dreamy voice] “ ‘The Sedona’ ….she returned to her home town and found the man she always loved …” He sells thousands of houses.
But isn’t that essentially what you are doing for your clients, only at a more sophisticated level?
Well it has to be more a portrait of themselves and a history of the place than it is a portrait of some abstract romance novel.
Do you agree in any way with those who are saying that post 9/11, American architecture has in fact become more daring, that there’s this urge to create impressive structures? I’m thinking of Jeanne Gang’s 82-story residential-hotel building in Chicago or the talk generated by Santiago Calatrava’s ideas for New York.
I think it’s become more international. I think that American patrons in the corporate world and the museum world are following the Holy Grail of the iconic building … Bilbao was the best example. I think it’s an absolute obsession with creating buildings that will make the institution famous. They’re completely unrelated, almost always, to the city they’re in.
What do you think of Tom Wolfe’s depiction of architects, in his book From OurHouse to Bauhaus, as a disdainful priesthood of divine control freaks?
Oh I enjoyed that so much! It’s one of my favorite books. It’s absolutely right. A lot of us are crazy.
How are you crazy?
I think my firm is more modest in our expectations of clients’ interests. Our portfolio confuses some prospective clients because when we build in Mexico we make it out of adobe and we use a style that might have been a rudimentary Greek revival style based on a pattern book that some soldier might have taken to Fort Capitan. We create a fiction and that results in a more modest and less visible signature. But I still have ideas that clients reject.
But where is your ego in all of this?
Wanting to see things built.
You just seem too nice …
I’m a disciplinarian when it comes to the process and I tell clients when they hire me that building is hard. You have to have a battle plan and that the architects are the generals.
You have said yourself that you still have some romance for the ideal of the 19th century gentleman architect but is that difficult to sustain in an era of such advanced technology?
I’m a materialist also. I enjoy cooking and I’m quite delighted with my new Thermidor oven, and I’m quite happy to recommend it. I mean … I … operate at that level of detail that I actually enjoy all those consumer things … I don’t hold myself above it.
What if people accuse you, or your work, of being nostalgic …cozy … unchallenging?
I think that nostalgia is a very different thing. Nostalgia is sentimental, syrupy and soppish. I like to think that we’re being more subtle than that … I suppose the only nostalgia I know that I have is having grown up in New York when the economy wasn’t as good, that perverse nostalgia for the city in its grey day, that there wasn’t quite enough butter for the bread, the 70s when New York was faded.
You seem to have a love of language …
I love language and I wish I had more time. When I had more time and I used to do other things I was on the board of the Poetry Project at Saint Marks for years. I don’t read as much as I should. I don’t keep as much as I would like with fiction and someone in the office warned me that an architect who gives too much to poetry won’t have any poetry left for architecture.
What would it do to your heart to watch one of your buildings being demolished?
Er …I’d be sad. I saw one actually. I did a project when I was still in architecture school which was the lobby of a theater called Playwright’s Horizons. And then I opened the Times and there was a picture of my space. There were people standing there with champagne and there was graffiti on the walls – it was a demolition party.
Where would you turn for consolation? Probably champagne and graffiti.