Classical Talks – Interviews with members of The Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America
This exclusive interview with Gil Schafer III, AIA of G.P. Schafer Architect was conducted by Nicola Linza and Cristoffer Neljesjö in New York during February 2011
Interview with Gil Schafer III, AIA
Why did you choose to be an architect?
From my earliest memory, I wanted to be an architect—or at least to make buildings, before I knew what that was called. I came from a family of architects (grandfather and great-great grandfather), but also from parents who were always building. So, I was around construction a great deal growing up and found it thrilling. And of course there was the usual obsession with Lincoln Logs, Lego’s and wooden blocks.
As opposed to commercial work you clearly have a penchant for residential architecture and interior design. What draws you to this area of focus?
I don’t have a good academic answer for this one—perhaps Freud will do better. I grew up in and around some wonderful (old) houses and for some reason I was drawn to their scale and detail and then continued to be intrigued, even as I advanced in my education, by solving the problems of planning a good house. Also, I love landscape and interiors; designing houses gives you more opportunities to work on all three (architecture, decoration, landscape) simultaneously and in real detail. I think a successful house demands that its architecture, decoration and landscape be in synch. When you work on houses, you begin to understand how important—and integral—decoration is to the design process because houses have to be livable and comfortable and those qualities aren’t coming only from the architecture.
I also love the interaction with clients at a level that only happens when you are designing a residence. You get the chance to create places for people to enhance their lives and to make their own memories. I just came from visiting a house that we completed a couple of years ago for a young couple with three small children. (You can see it in the new, March, issue of Veranda, BTW.) It was a grand—but not too grand—old house designed originally by Charles Platt but then badly renovated over the years. We took it completely apart and put it back together again as though Platt were called back for the assignment. But we also paid close attention to the needs of a young dynamic family with children and, working with David Netto who did the decoration, created something that is classical and dignified, but also has a real contemporary spirit to it and functions the way a young family needs it to. I tell the story because being back in the house last week, now that the family is living there, I could see all the ways they had made it very much their own and were now enthusiastically calling it “home”. What could be more satisfying than that?!
Your work exhibits a strong connection to place and context, which in traditional architecture is very important. Do you feel that is a factor in work being timeless?
I think that for any architecture to be rooted in its site, it has to take notice of what’s around it. That is certainly true of traditional architecture, but I think architecture of any style is more meaningful when it establishes some relationship with its context—even if it is to ultimately contradict that context. Creating a sense of place is so important to my work, because I believe that when you are making a home for a family, it has to resonate beyond the building itself. It is the entire environment that becomes the thing that is a catalyst for memorable experiences. That really only works when building and context are unified in one composition. A house that is well-rooted in its context will also feel as if it “has always been there”, and that inevitably gives the work a certain timeless quality.
Please describe what timelessness of design means to you.
No gimmicks! Because we try to avoid gimmicks in our work and utilize a language of design that is rooted in history, I believe our projects stand the test of time better—they have an inherent timelessness that sets them apart from more fashion-oriented, trendy approaches to design. The classical language of architecture has endured for thousands of years precisely because it can be reinterpreted and reinvented in every age, but it still retains fundamental principles of proportion and detail within each transformation. That language allows us to create work that connects to our past but also answers the questions posed by the demands of contemporary lifestyle today. The fun of it is in figuring out how to use the language to do that.
Traditional architecture has come back in vogue in the past 20 years. Is this a societal trend and/or do you see the larger public in general reawakening to the honest value of classical design?
When I was in school, if you looked back to history in your work, it made people really nervous—like there was something wrong with you, or you were politically suspect. I now think classical/ traditional architecture is much less burdened by all that baggage. People are not as fearful of expressing a connection to the past as a way to think about the future—the past and the future don’t have to be mutually exclusive ideas. So, yes, I think there has been a general reawakening to the inherent value of tradition. For a lot of people, building a house means connecting with your own memories and traditions, and traditional architecture makes it possible to tap into that more easily—makes it possible to make a connection between past memories and the new ones that will be made in a new house. You can’t underestimate the power of memory.
I also think that in this recession-ravaged time, we look for lasting value wherever we can find it. There is a solidity and permanence to classical and traditional design. Its timelessness also makes it a good investment.
Please describe your personal style.
Not surprisingly, I like classic tailoring with subtle flair. For work I generally favor Italian interpretations of the classics: soft/rolled-shouldered, well tailored, beautifully detailed, hand made suits and sport coats by Isaia, Belvest, Kiton. Shirts and ties by Charvet. Trousers by Incotex. Shoes by Gravati, Crocket & Jones, Magnanni. For weekends: Cucinelli, Barbera, Zegna, J. Crew.
What are your thoughts on contemporary architecture executed in so-called cutting-edge designs?
Probably because I have loved architecture since I was a child, I have spent a lifetime looking at and being inspired by buildings—all kinds of buildings, classical and modern. So I can get excited about a beautiful modern building as much—or almost as much—as a classical one. But it has to be designed with rigor and executed with craftsmanship and elegance. It has to be beautiful.
I am always troubled by architecture today that wants to express, celebrate even, the dislocation, randomness and violence of contemporary life. The architecture that has meaning to me is a haven, a refuge, an alternative to those dislocating forces which we come up against every day in our lives. Who wants to come home at the end of a hard day and do battle with the harsh realities of the human condition all over again in our living room?
The above interview with Gil Schafer III 2011 © Manner of Man Magazine/Welldressed. All rights reserved. Reproduction is strictly prohibited without written permission from the publisher.