Thomas A. Kligerman is not just an architect. He’s a designer, adventurer, and cultural philosopher who loves pushing tradition and history forward. “If I wasn’t an architect, I would be designing cars,” he says, adding that he’s a “modernist at heart with a deep love for architectural history.” He likes finding the intersections of architecture in all forms, genres, and eras and the historical overlaps. For him, travel is fundamental, and his journeys around the world include a recent stint at the American Academy in Rome as a Visiting Scholar. Kligerman’s adventures in architecture began at Columbia University studying with Robert A. M. Stern, followed by a Master of Architecture from Yale School of Architecture. Returning to New York, he spent seven years working with Stern and today is a partner at renowned firm Ike Kligerman Barkley, all the while pushing his passion for architectural history into a visual conversation about historical modernism and perspective.
1 You are a “modernist at heart” who “loves history, doesn’t want to ape, and wants to push tradition in a modern direction.” Can you elaborate? At Columbia, Robert A. M. Stern had us really delve into architectural history, which I loved and still do. That’s what I typically post on my Instagram page. But it is also 2019, and there is a history of modernism that makes today different from the 1900s, 1800s, and other eras of architecture. Ignoring this would mean turning your back on a huge side of cultural development and history. For me, it’s important to create a building that lives in today—form, shade, and shadow that, yes, are rooted in more traditional styles. It behooves all of us to move the needle on architectural history. And it is not enough to re-create. I like a little more mystery and the idea of trying to come up with a new way of looking at things.
2 You spent a significant amount of time in Rome (as a visiting scholar at the American Academy). What is it about the city that, as you say, opens up perspective? I have been fascinated with Rome since my first visit when I was 17. I love the ruins—their scale, how they are an armature for something else, and how they rip through the side of a building or cut through the city. And most importantly, I love their incomplete nature. Not really unfinished but “de-finished,” so to speak, and the beginning of something else. Those leftovers are incredibly suggestive and everyone interprets them differently, depending on your walk of life— architect, painter, historian. I look at them as great sculptural forms that emphasize shadows and the movement of the sun. I try and bring that into my architecture. Something that is not so complete that it sets the design in a way that leaves no room for imagination. When I was in graduate school, I realized that the unfinished drawing brings more to the conversation, to the project. Rome is like that—an armature for discussion asking, “What do these things suggest to you?”
3 We talked about your passion for design—cars, industrial, and architecture, and you said that your path is creating “art form that has to function,” and how you love those “in-between zones that blend together yet have tension.” I love bringing disparate ideas together to see what happens when creating a new building. Building is both art and function, and I like that buildings function as art. For example, I love when a client comes to me with an idea for, say, a Shingle Style house and they really like Mies van der Rohe. That [the conversation] produces really interesting work. And it makes it harder to ape an older building style. It’s that conversation of seemingly separate disparate ideas that really drives me lately. For example, I love two inherent American architectural styles—Shingle Style and ruins of native Puebloan architecture of the American Southwest. What would a building look like if you brought them together? Combining these two indigenous architectural styles results in a third style, something “in between.” No matter what, I want to be respectful of the surrounding architecture and cultural tradition, so it [my work] doesn’t stand out like a sore thumb and is respectful to the people who live there. You have to create with humility; you don’t want to make the giant statement. Instead, you are treading that fine line between doing something new/original/what the client wants and something that doesn’t end up being the bad kid at the table. You build a house and it remains there, done and very public.
4 What is inspiring you right now and what can we expect in the near future? I am exploring the notion of combining masonry buildings with framed houses. In my buildings I am trying to incorporate these ideas while bringing something modern to them. I like pushing traditional houses in a more modern, spare direction. Lately, I have been looking at origami and the idea of creating volume through folded planes and angles, in particular, folded planes of cedar shingle. I am fascinated with creating sculpture that walks the line between folded origami paper and something that suggests weight and mass.