Interview: Dattner Architects (Summer 2007)

Goodwill Games Swimming and Diving Complex, New York, NY (Photo: Peter Mauss/ESTO)

COMPETITIONS: What led you to choose architecture as a profession?


RICHARD DATTNER: It’s a little like Dustin Hoffman in the movie The Graduate. I already wanted to be an architect in the seventh grade, when I was building architectural models. When I was in high school, somebody whispered to me “electronics.” “Since architects don’t make money, you should study something that has a real future.” So I actually went to MIT thinking I would become an electrical engineer. I realized you couldn’t see any of those little things zipping around—the electrons, etc. My next door dorm-mates, actually three architects from New York,–Andy Blackman, Peter Samton and Jordan Gruzen, were three years ahead of me and were having a lot of fun—building models, beautiful girls came in and out of their dormitory rooms. I thought, “I’ll have what they’re having.” Luckily, at MIT, the first year is the same for whatever your major will ultimately be; so I switched back to my original love. From there, I never looked back.


COMPETITIONS: MIT was different than Harvard when you were there. At Harvard, where they had very strong deans—Gropius and Sert—everything that the students turned out looked pretty much the same. At MIT it was different.


RD: MIT was a kind of ‘Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom.’ They had some wonderful people, some of whom were rejects from Harvard, .i.e. Joseph Hudnut, who had been the dean at Harvard. Other great professors included Lewis Mumford, Kenzo Tange, Leonardo Ricci, Georgy Kepes, Richard Filipowski, Lawrence Anderson, etc.


COMPETITIONS: What effect did your stay at the Architecture Association in London have on you?


RD: During my junior year at MIT, I had an opportunity to take the middle year of my 5-year stay at MIT at the AA.  There I had a similarly interesting roster of people—James Stirling and many of the British “brutalists.” It was a good antidote to America. In those days in America, Edward Durrell Stone was the hero, producing a kind of “surface architecture,” which by the way is probably going on today. So what goes around, comes around. When I was in London in 1957/58, London was still recovering from the war—there were still bombed-out sites. So architects were much more brutal and honest—Corbusier was a hero. The London County Council was doing incredible social housing, some of it based on the Unité d’habitation of Corbu. There was a lot of fascinating school design going on. As an interesting time, it was a real kind of antidote to the postwar, feelgood (trend) then current in the United States.


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Courtlandt City Hall, Courtlandt, NY – Winning Competition entry, 1976 (unbuilt)

COMPETITIONS: When you started your own firm in New York, you were doing a lot of playgrounds. Is there some kind of logical progression from that genre to designing schools?

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