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?

RD: I started my career in playgrounds in the 1960s, worked for a number of offices in New York (and got laid off by many of them). It was difficult for me to work for other people and I got the opportunity in 1964 to design the Estée Lauder factory with Sam Brody—we were both teaching at Cooper Union at the time. Shortly after that, the Lauder Foundation asked me to design the Adventure Playground. From those two projects, both for Estée Lauder—the factory won a national AIA Honor Award when I was 27 years old—most of my work subsequently flowed. The industrial/commercial work resulted from the factory, and the public work really flowed from the playgrounds. After I did the playgrounds, I was put on a list for a public school in New York City, and I was awarded a public school in 1969 when I had a tiny office. From those beginnings we’ve grown to an office of some 70 people.


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Estee Lauder Laboratories, Melville, New York – 1972 (Photo: Kevin Chu + Jessica Paul)

COMPETITIONS: How did the Estée Lauder project come about?

RD: It all started with a kitchen renovation in a brownstone, which I really didn’t want to do; but my wife encouraged me to go ahead with it. So I went ahead and designed this kitchen. After that a family saw my kitchen and asked me if I would like to do their brownstone. I did the renovation of the brownstone, and the contractor who did that job mentioned to me that he had a neighbor who wanted to build a factory. “Had I ever done a factory? No, but I could do one.” Since I was working out of my living room, I joined up with my colleague at Cooper–Sam Brody–who then had a small office of five people, and we made a presentation to Leonard Lauder who had a small company of about 50 employees in New Hyde Park. He was interested in doing a warehouse/office/factory building on Long Island and narrowly picked us over somebody that was just going to build him a speculative building. Our design was a porcelain enameled round-cornered building. That is when won a national AIA Honor Award and we got a lot of publicity from that. The continuation of that story is that next month I am going to Belgium to design the second phase of a factory for Lauder—we did the first phase 25 years ago. So that relationship has continued since 1964—always together with Davis Brody. Sam Brody passed away some ten years ago, and I now work with Steve Davis. Now Lauder has 15,000 employees, and they are all over the world.
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Estee Lauder Distribution Center, Lachen, Switzerland – 1998 (Photo: Courtesy Dattner Architects)

COMPETITIONS: Your firm only enters competitions periodically. I assume it’s one of those pick and choose scenarios.

RD: The downside of competitions are: [1] you might have 800 entries, and [2] the project may never get built. When I started practice, there were no computers, so entering a competition as a single person was questionable; but now, a single person with a computer can turn out anything. They may not be able to actually produce the project; but they can certainly produce the design.

COMPETITIONS: When established firms ask if they should enter a competition, my response is usually the following: Entering can be justified if it is a building type they have never built but are interested in.  It’s a learning process which can provide the firm with expertise in that area.

RD: There is another. When we won the “Classroom of the Future” competition, we felt we had to enter. It’s almost the opposite of what you are saying. We had a lot of school experience, and the competition was held by the NYC School Construction Authority. We felt that it would be disrespectful if we did not enter—and we won. The project was canceled, because there was an accident, and a brick fell on a girl’s head. They canceled the whole program and started repairing schools for the next ten years. Here’s another competition where I thought we had one of the better entries, and we didn’t even make the first cut—The World Trade Center. It seemed to me purely political–they selected one of this kind, one of that kind, one from Europe, one from downtown, etc.

COMPETITIONS: Recently, the Behnisch office in Stuttgart mentioned that morale in the office improved when they began putting three or four people on competitions all the time as a standard practice. This during a long period when the entire office had been consumed with a mega-bank project.

Bill Stein: That’s great if you can afford to finance that. Architects love competitions and are never happier when they are working for no money.

No. 7 Subway Line Extension, New York, NY (Images: Courtesy Architects)
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above and below: No. 7 Subway Line Extension, New York, NY (renderings: Courtesy Dattner Architects)

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New York City Subway – 7 Line (diagram: courtesy Dattner Architects)

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New York City Subway – 7 Line (Photos: ©David Sundburg/ESTO)

COMPETITIONS: You have been involved in quite a bit of affordable housing in the city. In spite of budget constraints, has there been some flexibility when it comes to design? I recall a former member of the planning commission, Michael Pittas, mentioning that one public housing design that was presented in the 60s was criticized for being too attractive. “It didn’t look enough like public housing.”
RD: I think what Michael may have been referring to is Taino Towers in East Harlem. It’s four high-rise buildings that look like they belong in Miami. They were electrically heated and very expensive both to build and operate. They were built as affordable and subsidized housing. That project specifically sparked a big reaction among lower-middle class people, who said, “Wait a minute, I can’t afford an apartment, and look what they are building for poor people using my tax money.” Now it’s a different story.
No. 7 Subway Line Extension, New York, NY (Images: Courtesy Architects)
BILL STEIN: There is a whole different attitude on the part of city government and architects towards affordable housing. It’s really been changing over the past ten years or so. There is much more interest in design and increasingly more interest in sustainability—not only the energy savings—but also on the part of the operators of affordable housing, people like Phipps Houses who manage something like 15,000 apartments in New York. The energy savings that they gain—as tight as construction budgets are—the operating budgets are even tighter. So any energy savings are really important; but equal to the energy savings is the new emphasis on healthy environments, particularly with things like asthma rates in places like the South Bronx where the New Housing New York competition site is located. Also the way to improve the environmental quality for residents and what impact do buildings have on the lives of residents. Those are the questions that people have increasingly been asking and sort of coalesced in the NHNY competition.
No. 7 Subway Line Extension, New York, NY (Images: Courtesy Architects)
COMPETITIONS: The recent housing competition you participated in with Grimshaw doesn’t fit the old notion of public housing. How did the team come together in this competition.
No. 7 Subway Line Extension, New York, NY (Images: Courtesy Architects)
“Via Verde” First Place New Housing New York Competition (2006) (Rendering: courtesy Dattner & Grimshaw)

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RD: It’s an interesting team, put together by our client, who are themselves a team.  Our clients are Phipps Houses, possibly the leading developer, manager and operator of affordable housing in New York City, and The Jonathan Rose Company, who is very much a leader in sustainable community design, looking to the future, work/live arrangements. They joined together, then put together the architectural team, which is us and Grimshaw. What is interesting about our team is that we are a local firm extremely experienced in affordable housing and in the ways of New York, both its social patterns and the bureaucratic framework in which things are realized. Grimshaw is a London firm that established a small office in New York and was eager to penetrate this market. As an outside firm with a fresh look, they would ask questions that we might not ask, because we had asked those questions before and found answers. By combining that fresh look with our experience, as well as the interaction of two teams—on each side we had four or five people from each firm working on this—there were eight or so architects, not to mention energy experts, mechanical engineers, landscape architects, so it was a fascinating team charrette.

“Via Verde” First Place New Housing New York Competition (2006) (all photos:©David Sundberg/Esto )
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BILL STEIN: There was a similar dynamic among the client group. Phipps is more of the nuts and bolts, understanding the real problems of maintaining and operating housing, whereas Jonathan Rose Company, although they have certainly done building and understand the reality of building, may have more of an visionary approach, although very practical at the same time.



RD: So that combination resulted in a scheme that was both fresh and innovative, but constructible. There were 8-10 architects working on this, which should give you an idea of the economics of the competition process. One thing we were very firm on was, “we’ll enter the competition and sort of bet the ranch, but we want to make sure that the ranch is built if we win it. We didn’t want to do a pie-in-the-sky design that could not be realized.


BILL STEIN: I think the other team members felt the same way.


COMPETITIONS: There must have been compensation on the front end?


BILL STEIN: $10,000. You have to understand that that is a tiny amount of money from the architects’ point of view; but from the city’s point of view this was almost revolutionary. For them to lay out money for a design competition—I think they were very proud of being able to do that—so what they did was a two-stage competition, the first being a solicitation of qualifications from developer/architect teams. They got 38 responses, and from that they short-listed five teams, and each team received $10,000.  From the city’s point of view it was breaking new ground. From our point of view, the compensation was very minimal.


COMPETITIONS: In most limited competitions, firms have an eye on their competitors, and often think about how they can differentiate themselves from them. In this case did you just think about doing your own thing and ignore what others might do?


BILL STEIN: I can well imagine in another case, not in a competition, where an another architect might do this, so we might do that. In this case, we didn’t take that approach at all. We just thought about the problems and our best response to the site and the program.


COMPETITIONS: Any idea what might have tipped the scales in your favor in this case?


RD: I think it was a combination of practicality—that it could actually be built—and yet the kind of interesting approach of varied scale, varied kind of housing, the solar access of the building, stepping down from north to south. I think our clients helped to tip the balance, because they are people who can both build and operate this kind of project.


BILL STEIN: I think we had a great design, and people probably appreciated that; but this was not purely a design competition. It was a competition that the City actually wanted to see built.


RD: Bill has a point. Often one wins a competition with a scheme that is so dramatic, and basically unbuildable without raising two or three times the amount of money that a normal scheme would. So it’s all or nothing. The client can say, “this is fabulous; we’re going to raise $100M to do it.” But three or four out of five times they can’t do it; and very often it sinks under its own weight. This (NHNY) was a competition also, not in the sense of an (open) design competition; we were the small local firm which won.


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Bronx Library Center, New York, NY (Photo: Jeff Goldberg/ESTO)
COMPETITIONS: Many architects would much rather deal with private clients than public institutions. You seem to have found a middle ground. Much of your work has been with the City. The question many architects would pose is: “How do you do it?”
RD: Other architects ask that, and we try not to tell them, because then they become competitive. Like everything, it’s a mixed bag. Yes, it’s a public client and to a certain degree a bureaucracy. On the other hand, public buildings serve countless numbers of people. In the end, and although the process is normally slow, it’s a fair one and you get paid. A private client can make up their mind instantly, but they can also make up their mind instantly to go to another architect or abandon the project, or sell it. So each area of practice has different criteria.
M-125 Garage and Spring Street Salt Shed  (photos: ©Albert Vecerka/Esto
BILL STEIN: One thing which distinguishes this New Housing NY project is that the City, with all the agencies involved, is trying to have a more progressive attitude towards this project and see how they can facilitate things, rather than saying “no” or putting up roadblocks. That is what they have promised and that is their attitude. We’ll see how it plays out over the coming months.
RD: If it happens, it could be the best thing that would come out of it. There was a symposium, and one question was,  “what’s the revolutionary aspect here?” My response was that the real revolutionary aspect is that all these city agencies have decided to work together to enable the project, rather, as often happens, to find criteria that haven’t been met. In some cases they are going to help us stretch some criteria. So that augers well for the profession if it can be maintained. An interesting factor about New York City is that we have a mayor who is interested in good design, two deputy mayors who are very focused on contemporary or cutting edge architectural design, and we have a city planning commissioner, Amada Burden, who is similarly focused on a high level of architectural design. So all those stars are aligned, resulting in a higher bureaucratic demand for a higher level of design.
BILL STEIN: The mayor also has a very ambitious housing program, providing an additional 65,000 units of housing over the next eight years. The direction for the City agencies is, instead of putting up roadblocks, make it happen.
COMPETITIONS: Infrastructure design is not something that is promoted a lot in schools of architecture and is regarded by many as a “specialized” area. As a result, much of our infrastructure is under-designed. This does not seem to be the trend in New York.
RD: Infrastructure, as well as public art, are very much at the center of our practice. The City Percent for Art Program is very active here.  For every public project, one percent is set aside for art.  There is a similar program in place for subway stations, which is another area of our practice.  This is the 72nd Street Subway which we recently completed, with the artwork, and we are presently doing two new subway stations for the Number 7 Line, which is going to the west side of Manhattan. That should be quite dramatic. We designed a new steel and glass entrance for the Bowling Green station in lower Manhattan, which just got its glass this weekend. We are also doing marine transfer stations with cranes, etc., where all of New York City’s garbage is going to be loaded on barges.Very often we are hired by these large engineering firms like Parsons Brinkerhoff on the 7 Line, Hazen and Sawyer on the new water purification plant, Greeley & Hansen for Marine Transfer Stations. We love infrastructure projects, which many architects may not even know exist. Since I went to MIT, I am partly an engineer, and speak their language. Another project I liked working on is the Intrepid Aircraft Carrier. We are the master planners for the Intrepid, which is now in dry dock in Bayonne (NJ). We have a very varied practice, and every now and then we do a competition.
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USS Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum Master Plan & Renovations, Bayonne, NJ
COMPETITIONS: Many cities once gained their livelihood from their rivers and, like San Francisco, New York was a victim of a trend, losing its shipping to other ports. When did the City begin to recognize that the piers could be reused for other purposes?
RD: Over the last twenty years a number of things have happened. First of all, the Hudson River Park Trust was created to build a park along the Hudson all the way from 59th Street to Battery Park. North of 59th Street there is a city park. Another one of our projects is the Hudson River Park northern segment—from 26th Street to 59th Street. We’ve designed three boathouses, a park building and a number of piers.  Pier 66, which is at 26th Street, Pier 84 at 44th Street, and Pier 96, which is a boathouse near 56th Street. (Most New Yorkers don’t even know that you take the pier number, subtract 40 and you get the street number–that works down to 14th Street.) Another fascinating thing is that people are flocking to the water, and there is a bike/pedestrian path that shortly will be finished all the way from the George Washington Bridge to Battery Park at the lower end of Manhattan. So people are now biking to work, along that bikeway.

   One of these projects was a limited competition, where four groups submitted proposals for Pier 40, the old Holland American Line. Our competitors are proposing things such as the Cirque du Soleil, an entertainment complex and movie multiplex and shopping mall. The community is very up in arms against it because of the traffic it will bring. My group, the CampGroup and Urban Dove, propose a much smaller intervention with recreation space pretty much like Riverbank State Park, which we designed. There is another competition for Piers 92 and 94; we’re working with SMWM for Vornado Realty Trust and Merchandise Mart from Chicago to do an exhibition/conference center for (trade) shows like NEOCON. The city’s Economic Development Corporation sponsored this, invited bids, and has narrowed it down to two teams.