Starchitects on the Buildings That Influenced Them Most
Published in Architectural Record
Ando, Meier, Scott Brown, Decq, and others talk about their inspirations
I went to USC in the late 60s—when the school was anti-history. I came away with very little knowledge of even the major characters—Mies, Corbusier. So I was largely self-taught. After I began my practice, I went through a Kahn phase, a Rudolph phase. Remember, I was still a kid. Later, I became fascinated by James Stirling, and I went to England and saw all his work. My list of influences was enormous. That being said, if I had to name a single building, it would be the Centre Pompidou. It had this incredible influence on me, in terms of the intensity of the research that went into it. I had two friends from UCLA who were working on the building, and I visited them at the office. There were dozens of blue-foam models of the gerberettes. I was completely bowled over by the seriousness of the investigation. I didn’t go home and start making buildings that look like the Pompidou; that’s not my architecture. I was interested in its aspirations, in its ambition—the notion of challenging the Louvre, the museum as supermarket. It was a completely new model, architecture shaping how we understand culture. I had an exhibition there in 2006. Designing the show, we put everything in a glass floor. We didn’t touch he walls. We were reverential.
I had the pleasure of spending the night at Fallingwater, as a guest of Edgar Kaufmann Jr. It must have been the early 60s. But I have the experience in my head, as though it was yesterday. It starts when you drive up, seeing the house, not seeing it, then seeing it again. The whole approach is brilliant. There’s not a thing that’s accidental, that’s not a part of the plan. It’s total. Later, when you walk the site and see how the house is perched on this rock over the waterfall, it’s truly magnificent. I had a bedroom that was maybe seven feet by 10 feet. It was intimate—but so is the whole house. From photos, you think it’s a big building. It’s not. The living-dining room makes people come together. But, of course, that room explodes onto the terrace over the waterfall—part of an unbelievable series of spatial experiences. It’s like the Guggenheim Museum: It’s amazing from the outside, but the interior space is even more amazing. I haven’t been back to Fallingwater since, but it’s still with me. If I could achieve something like that, I’d be very happy.
As a student in the 1970s, I saw an exhibition about Claude Parent and other visionary architects of the 1960s, and I’ve never stopped thinking about it. Parent’s idea was that being on oblique, rather than horizontal, surfaces was good for the body. For Le Corbusier, a ramp was a way to get from one place to another. For Parent, a ramp was something very different, a surface on which to position yourself, a place of destabilizing and re-stabilizing. In his church in Sainte-Bernadette du Banlay, which was consecrated in 1966, the floors tilt in at different angles. It’s bizarre that I have never been there, but I know it well. As a young architect, I was too timid to try anything like it. But in the 1990s, I began to free myself. At the FRAC Bretagne museum in Rennes and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Rome, people travel on ramps. If you’re on a ramp, and you want to be stable, you have to use your muscles. It makes you think about your relationship to the architecture. The building and your body are communicating.
Denise Scott Brown
If you ask Bob, “What is your favoring building?” he will say the Hagia Sophia. If you ask him, “What is your favorite Modern building?” he will say the Villa Savoie.
For me? I remember, at the age of two, standing with my parents on an empty lot looking at blueprints. We had moved from Zambia to South Africa and were building a house. It was by Norman Hanson, who had made contact with Le Corbusier and then returned to do fantastic International Style houses in Johannesburg. We built that house and I lived there until I was 12. For that reason, the memories other kids have about attics and creaky staircases I have about flat roofs and lally columns. I remember a porthole window, watching the light come through it and the circle of sun moving across the room as I lay on my parents’ bed in the late afternoon. I harbored a love of early Modernism then, and I am still an early Modernist—and, by the way, so is Bob. Bob is the most dour functionalist I’ve ever come across—even more than me. We really just added one more function—communication through decoration—to the functions of early Modernist buildings.
The Córdoba Mosque, which I first visited as a student, has been a continuous lesson to me for more than half a century. The building is a theological experience. The Islamic sense of an indecipherable god is present there. The essence of architectural space is expressed in that forest of columns, many of which were Roman. But it’s not about recycling—it’s about the unfolding of history. When the mosque was enlarged, the formal rules that created the building allowed it to grow without losing its essence. Of course, in the 16th century there was a very radical intervention—an entire cathedral was placed inside the mosque. But even that didn’t destroy it! The combination of the Islamic and the late Gothic only adds to the sense of history. A building that can accept something so different is a marvel—I think you are looking at one of the most successful buildings in all of architectural history. And there is no one architect associated with it. It’s about architecture, not about a single architect. That idea has stayed with me throughout my entire career.
I’m in trouble because so many buildings have influenced me. When I see a building for the first time, I don’t focus on what I don’t like; I focus on what I do like. So I absorb things from many buildings. But if I have to pick one, it would be Brunelleschi’s Dome of Santa Maria del Fiore, in Florence. I spent two years in Florence as a student, ’58 and ’59, and I’ve always loved the story of Brunelleschi. This man started not as an artist but as a craftsman, apprenticed to a goldsmith; soon he was making clocks, which meant working with weights, with balance, and with movement. He used that knowledge when he became an architect. I’ve been convinced that you might start as a craftsman, then become more of an artist, but it’s almost impossible to do the opposite. As for the cupola itself, it was very inventive; the lantern at the top acts as the keystone of the dome. It’s a very radical idea. Brunelleschi made a model of the dome, which sat in the piazza. And it stayed there for years—because it took him years to persuade people that it would work. It’s a lesson in stubbornness. It taught me about the art of believing in what you are doing, and defending your idea. The dome is beautiful, but so is the story behind it.
For me, the building that inspired the most fundamental thoughts on architectural issues is the Municipal Orphanage in Amsterdam by Aldo Van Eyck, completed in 1960. The first reason is that the building clearly shows how to construct a dynamic whole out of a thoughtful composition of generic elements (in this case, a spatial unit in and around which children live and play). Van Eyck says this idea was inspired by villages in Africa, but it could be any village—as Bernard Rudofsky illustrated in Architecture Without Architects some years ago . Van Eyck has beautifully realized this concept using a modern architectural vocabulary. The second reason is that the building clearly shows the importance of using sight lines to organize space. Humans tend to act after first seeing; thinking and feeling come later. I have not seen such a beautiful analysis of the relationship between sight line and space before or since. The Orphanage continues to inspire my work to this day.
Tough question. I don't want to sound arrogant, but I have never been influenced by a specific building. And I think Pierre would give you pretty much the same answer. We look closely at many buildings and we see a lot of beauty in many of them. We’ve never really admired one building specifically. Last year I wrote a text about my visit to the Farnsworth House. I was ready to admire it for its beauty, but I discovered many things that made no sense. The truth is, it’s not as great as everybody thinks. I wrote a very critical text. Still, I learned from the house, because it activated my perception. Active perception is what you create out of what you see. It makes you become conscious and critical. Perception therefore also has a political and erotic side. Your perception is more important than the object being perceived—more important than any specific building.
There are many buildings that have remained in my heart and that I still think about from time to time. If I had to choose one from among them, it would have to be Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp Chapel (Chapelle Notre Dame du Haut). The great master who laid the foundations for Modernism created the space by truly unleashing his genius late in his career. Here, he paradoxically demonstrated the limitless possibilities of Modern architecture by creating the unrestrained sculptural form of concrete in an apparent rejection of the trajectory of his earlier work. At the same time, he proved that architecture can be made through the pursuit of light alone. It is a rare work that has, from the moment of its birth, brimmed with the power to last throughout time like the spaces of classical architecture. I had the opportunity to witness a mass when I visited the building for the second time in my twenties. People were praying intently, shoulder to shoulder, under the beautiful yet intense light. To this day, that scene has been an inspiration for me in my pursuit to create architecture as a place for people to gather.