An Interview with Architects Mark Ferguson, Russell Windham, and Gil Schafer III

Three of our country’s esteemed architects, Mark Ferguson, Russell Windham, and Gil Schafer III, talk about Classical Design, how their environment shaped their ideas, and where they find inspiration—and sometimes that elusive euphoria.
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Home designed by Mark Ferguson of Ferguson & Shamamian Architects.

Home designed by Mark Ferguson of Ferguson & Shamamian Architects.

Architect Mark Ferguson

Architect Mark Ferguson

Mark Ferguson, Partner, Ferguson & Shamamian Architects, LLP, New York City

1 When and why did you become interested in Classical Design? Classical architecture was part of the post-modern debate and in the air while I was an undergraduate student from 1973 to 1978. It was implicit in the work and teaching of Michael Graves during my graduate studies from 1980 to 1982, and it finally took root in my own practice when I took a job at Parish-Hadley in 1984.

2 What or who was your first inspiration? I grew up on a family farm surrounded by farm buildings and orchards (in Elk Township, New Jersey). The varied buildings gave me a sense that building form was a function of use, materials, and customs. I sensed that the space around the buildings and its relationship with circulation paths, boundaries, and varied landscapes was just as important as the organization of space within buildings. I think the place hardwired my brain for architecture.

Leon Krier lectured at my school in the mid-1970s. The clarity of his thinking, the inventiveness of his designs, and the beauty of his drawings were hugely influential. He continues to be one of the most talented and important architects alive.

Home designed by Mark Ferguson.

Home designed by Mark Ferguson.

3 What is the most influential design book you have read and why did it affect you? The first architecture book to capture my imagination was the New York Five in my second year of school. The work was beautiful and complex, based on simple, pure forms. I wanted to emulate it. The essay by Colin Rowe introduced me to his work. His insights have stimulated my thinking for my entire career.

Another important discovery was the The Architecture of Sir Edwin Lutyens, a three-volume monograph. I purchased the reprint as soon as it was available in 1984 and have poured over the books ever since. He was one of the most naturally gifted architects to practice in the 20th century.

4 Have you felt euphoria upon completion of a project? What was it about your best experience that makes it so memorable: the client, design, setting, circumstance, or simple kismet?

Finishing a project is pleasantly satisfying, although it leaves me with a few things I would do differently next time. I derive more pleasure from the journey than the destination. Sites, clients, and fellow designers are all essential to creating a stimulating process.

5 If you had one piece of advice for a fledgling architect, what would it be? Good work depends on people skills as much as it depends on design skills.

FergusonShamamian.com

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Home designed by Russell Windham of Curtis & Windham Architects.

Home designed by Russell Windham of Curtis & Windham Architects.

Russell Windham

Russell Windham

Russell Windham, Founding Principal, Curtis & Windham Architects, Houston

1 When and why did you become interested in Classical Design? I became interested in Classical Design principles when I became interested in architecture. In my third year of design, when the emphasis became more about architecture instead of basic design and drawing, the things I was being taught did not seem to make sense to me. All of the things my teachers talked about, I had never seen or experienced. I loved cities, towns, and even the buildings in the country that made up places that spoke to me. None of that was even talked about in architecture school, hence my frustration. I grew in a rural north Texas town, in really wide open spaces. Any sense of enclosure was exciting. I also grew up with a shop and worked with my hands to build things: lots of barns and utility shelter for livestock. So I had this sense of how things go together, and the beauty in craft.

My frustrations with architecture teachers led me to the library. I remember the first time I saw Leon Krier’s work and read his argument about the city and its design. It spoke to me; it was like a breath of fresh air. I finally had something that I could use to ground my argument. This is when the light went off for me and, hence, Classical Design principles.

2 What or who was your first inspiration? Leon Krier’s work was very inspirational. Later, through books, I began to learn of the shingle style houses in the Northeast. It was amazing how fluid rectangular, natural materials could be in the hands of a master craftsman.

Home designed by Russell Windham.

Home designed by Russell Windham.

3 What is the most influential design book you have read and why did it affect you? I rely on books; we use precedent all the time. I am a firm believer in the tradition of architecture. Here at Curtis & Windham, we have more than 3,000 volumes and use them regularly, so it is difficult to determine the “most influential.” To pick one, I would have to go with Vitruvius’s The Ten Books on Architecture. Its description of architecture is alive and has just as much meaning today. I find inspiration in the composition of firmness, commodity, and delight. I refer to it all the time.

4 Have you felt euphoria upon completion of a project? What was it about your best experience that makes it so memorable: the client, design, setting, circumstance, or simple kismet? Interesting question. I feel great about every project. Sometimes it is something simple, like a beautiful proportion, scale, or detail. I think completing a project and feeling euphoria happens when all components come together: a happy client, the project on time, and a really beautiful building. It’s great working on houses because the client is really there all along; it is great at completion when they feel like they are part of the success.

We completed a dining hall for a local private school. The school had great expectations, but I don’t think it had a real grasp of the building and the surrounding campus that we had planned. So to see that client as well as the users be excited was just incredible. I still enjoy visiting the project just to see how kids and family admire the architecture.

5 If you had one piece of advice for a fledgling architect, what would it be? Find a firm whose work inspires you the most. Do everything you can to get a job at that firm and work more than they allow. I believe the first three years of a young architect’s career are the most vital. Learn how to think about architecture from a master: practice and practice more. It is one thing to conceive of architecture in an ivory tower; it is something completely different to create beautiful, functional, and responsible architecture.

CurtisAndWindham.com

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G.P. Schafer Architect home design

Home designed by Gil Schafer III of G.P. Schafer Architect.

Gil Schafer III

Gil Schafer III

Gil Schafer III, Founder, G.P. Schafer Architect, PLLC, New York City

1 When and why did you become interested in Classical Design? I became interested in architecture at a very young age, and never realized until I went to architecture school that people differentiated between classical and modern design—I had just thought it was all design and thus all worthy of interest. I didn’t realize that I would pursue Classical Design in my career until after I got out of school and it became clear that approaching my work from the foundation of tradition resonated more with me. It felt more connected to the way I grew up—to the kinds of houses and places I knew growing up.

2 What or who was your first inspiration? I think those houses I knew and lived in growing up— all of them more or less traditional and some even fairly classical—were what first inspired me. I seemed to innately understand them and the qualities that made each of them unique and special. It also helped that I had a grandfather who was an architect and a stepmother who was an interior decorator, so matters of design were always in the conversation growing up.

3 What is the most influential design book you have read and why did it affect you? Oh gosh, there have been so many, from Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture to Charles Moore’s The Place of Houses, to monographs of Lutyens, Charles Platt, and David Adler. That first book from the 1970s about David Adler’s work really showed me that houses could be elevated to a high art, yet still be livable and have charm. And it showed how key his collaboration with his decorator-sister Frances Elkins was to many of those houses having such a unique sense of style.

G.P. Schafer Architect home

Home designed by Gil Schafer III of G.P. Schafer Architect.

4 Have you felt euphoria upon completion of a project? What was it about your best experience that makes it so memorable: the client, design, setting, circumstance, or simple kismet? Oh, I feel the euphoria, always. And, at the same time, a great sadness because it means you are, in a sense, giving up your child to someone else to raise. But there is nothing more wonderful than that moment when your client walks into their house for the first time when it is fully complete, furnished, books in the shelves, paintings on the walls, flowers in the vases, and seeing that look of wonder in their eyes—and the realization that this is where they are now going to live.

It all starts with the client, doesn’t it? Without them, there is no project. I think some of my most memorable and best project experiences have been because of extraordinary clients—people who were themselves inspired, had great vision and great taste, who pushed you to do something you hadn’t done before, and who trusted you. The architect-client relationship is a funny one because it is so intense, for a relatively short period of time. But I’ve found that the best ones endure for your lifetime.

5 If you had one piece of advice for a fledgling architect, what would it be? Have patience. The younger generations have come of age in a time when everything is instant. But architecture just takes time. As a design process, it takes time, and as a construction process it takes time. And the things you learn that make you a better architect are an accumulation of knowledge from those often years-long project experiences. I found it is hard to rush the accumulation of that knowledge, which I realize is an especially alien idea in a time when Amazon can now deliver your order in a couple of hours.

Gpschafer.com

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