Utopia: A Peg on the Wall

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Despite what the movies depict, the life of an Architect is not necessarily a string of glamorous moments.  If you are doing it right, it is long hard hours and a dirty construction process. Only a small portion of the process consists of those wonderful moments when you and your team are struggling through a myriad of conceptual ideas in comradery.  But then, the project is complete and hopefully there is a moment of glamour!  Recently, sitting on the deck of a new modern house that we just completed on Little Peconic Bay, sharing a glass of wine with our clients on a beautiful sunny day, I had one of those moments – THIS was what I had always imagined that it was like for the Architects of “Weekend Utopia” (modern Hampton houses of the 1960s and 1970s depicted in Alastair Gordon’s book) when I was training to be an architect.    It was a moment of the grace of the leisure class of a bygone era, as well as a moment of satisfaction of being able to add modern houses into the waterfront landscape of the Hamptons!

It was 1998 when our client-turned-friend, invited my husband (and business partner) to her father’s home in the Georgica section of East Hampton.  Arriving to find that our weekend retreat was a Paul Lester Weiner house (a modern house that was part of our architecture study), was an extremely exciting moment for two young architects; AND….floating in the 90-degree pool, at night, in front of the glowing glass box was a luxury beyond words!  Our trips to the house became frequent and talk about fixing the things that did not stand the test of time and the original “wrongs” became regular conversation.  The masterpiece became less intimidating and more of a conceptual potential project (that never happened but endeared us to the house’s owner).

It was a year later, when our friend’s father and house’s owner, Elliott Schnall, invited us to an event at Guild Hall (and I am still thankful to him that he did).  He said it was an event honoring his house or perhaps that’s what I heard.  After one of the longest trips I had ever taken from Manhattan to East Hampton, at around 5 hours, we arrived quite late, a little disheveled and anxiety-ridden.  Elliott was waiting anxiously in front for us; he grabbed my arm as we approached and without a word pulled us through the front doors.  He had an agenda.

As he pulled us through the rooms with a speed I had a hard time keeping up with, I realized this was more than an event honoring HIS house; this was an event honoring the 1960s and 1970s modern houses of the Hamptons!  This was the Weekend Utopia exhibit (what became every Hamptonite’s coffee- table book for the next decade)!!  As we moved through the room, my heart was pounding and I could only hear my own breath. It was as if I was standing still and the room was moving around me; it was like a dolly shot in a Spike Lee movie.  The walls were filled with photos and drawings of houses that I had studied, dreamt about and on rare occasion actual saw in person.  And then….amidst the wealth of architecture around me, I started to realize that there, standing in front of the drawings and models were our professional and school inspirations – the ARCHITECTS!  With Elliott’s hand still tightly around my wrist and maneuvering me past lingering people, I saw the Neskis, Andrew Geller, and Charles Gwathmey.  I was overwhelmed and was suddenly thrust through a crowd and thrown face-to-chest of the man in the middle, Richard Meier!

Well…to a young Cornell graduate of the late 1980s, Meier was a not just a prominent fellow alumni but something of a hero.  And there I stood, front and center, in the middle of an entire group of people, all vying for his attention.  I had only a second to assess the white-haired, tall man in his oxford shirt with a hint of a hippie-braided bracelet poking out from under his sleeve, because without hesitation, Elliott said loudly, “Richard, meet your competition,” and said to me “introduce yourself”.  With everyone looking at me, I introduced myself quietly and demurely.  Politely, he took my hand and said “nice to meet you”.  Elliott went on to explain to Richard that we were the architects who did his daughters apartment because he was “too (expletive) expensive” and all I could think of to say was “lucky for me!”  He laughed and we spoke longer than I expected with the crowd around us at full attention.

It was after leaving that fan-circle that I began to really explore the exhibit around me.  For me, the best part was watching the people, whose faces and homes were depicted in the exhibit, experiencing themselves and their stories 30 years later and talking to their compatriots who shared in those glory days.  The stories were about the parties, the fun and a simplicity; a simplicity that they seemed to lament the loss of.   For a split second, I imagined 30 years forward and had a hope that I would be doing the same.  The thought gave me an excitement but there was a sadness in imaging the future as the past.

I remember meeting Andrew Geller years later when we were trying (successfully) to save his Double Diamond house in West Hampton.  He explained that putting a closet in in a beach house was excessive and that all one needed was a peg on the wall on which to hang their wet bathing suits.  Times have certainly changed and the new modern beach houses are being built with all the amenities of year-round living and more.  Sometimes as we are designing, I hear Andrew Geller’s voice in my head and I have a little private chuckle.  Though, regardless of how “luxury” and requirements have changed, as we design, I am always inspired by these wonderful works and thankful for Alastair Gordon’s documentation of it (a sort of reference bible in our office); and, as inspired to do so, design with the simple focus on the reflection of the water, trees and sky in the sweeping glass of unadorned forms – and the imagery of a future “weekend utopia” for those who will live there and enjoy!!