At a time when modern buildings are being designed and constructed with a focus on functionality rather than aesthetics and visual appeal, there is one architect in New York City who looks to the past for inspiration to create structures that are infused with light and that embody the essence of beauty and harmony. Peter Pennoyer is that architect, finding inspiration in classic styles of architecture throughout history.
Referring to himself as a historicist, Pennoyer explains, "In my practice I connect my work with architectural history and cultural history, so I try to use architectural history to spark my imagination and inspire me. And that is the case with everyone in my office. We look at history as being inspirational, and not limiting our imaginations but opening up new worlds. It's a very optimistic way of looking at the past."
One of the firm's recent projects was a classical Palladian house in the country that sits amongst rolling hills, designed not only as a home but also to house the owner's private art collection of Hudson River School paintings. The Hudson River School was a mid-19th century American art movement by a group of landscape painters whose aesthetic vision was influenced by romanticism. Their paintings depict the Hudson River Valley and the surrounding area, pastoral settings where human beings and nature coexist peacefully. Pennoyer explains, "That was a great project for me and my office because we were able to join the architectural style with the contents of the house, with the purpose of the house. We looked at the kind of classical architecture that was created in the first half of the twentieth century here by architects like Delano, Aldrich, Mott B. Schmidt, John Russell Pope, and many other architects who distilled classical architecture and made it more modern. We were able to look at that architecture and create voluminous rooms that were skilled to these Hudson River School paintings which are best known for representing landscapes in a classical way. These are paintings painted by American masters who really understood the structure of landscape. They understood all the specifics about the kinds of trees they were painting and how the light worked. We made the architecture a very sophisticated classical essay with the same attitude about history and the same attitude about the potential of bringing things to a fine and elegant resolution."
In regard to the classical arches gracing the interior of the house, Pennoyer explains, "The vaults are really all about softening the light that comes in. This particular building has large windows and terrace doors, and as the light reflects from the walls and the floors it washes over the vaults, so one of the exciting possibilities of vaults and arches is how they envelope nature and light. It's balancing the light in any room, even if you were designing a modern room. I think balancing the light and manipulating the light to create the best atmosphere is one of the most important things an architect can do."
The arches on the exterior of the house are carved out of stone, but the interior is all plaster. "It starts as a hand drawing, then it goes to a CAD drawing, then it goes to 3ds Max. There's a digital program we also use called Rhino and the company that makes these can use the digital file to create the shape, essentially robotically, with CNC production." CNC, which stands for Computer Numerically Controlled, is technology that was developed in the United States in the 1950's for the US Air Force by metalworking machine tool builders. It uses a stream of digital information from a computer to move motors and other positioning systems that guide a spindle over raw material. In this case, the interior arches of the house are pre-fabricated. "They're screwed into a wooden frame above and then hand plaster is applied to draw it all together. So even though it may look very traditional, it's the most cutting edge technique we've ever used. I think, for instance, every Frank Gehry Building has a lot of that kind of modeling. I think it's very uncommon in traditional or classical practices, but I think architects who are being trained now are absolutely interested in CNC production. The difference is that we try to use these new technologies to be able to realize designs that, at a glance, look very historic."
One element of classical architecture that is often overlooked, says Pennoyer, is the ornament. "We're lucky to have clients who let us bring ornament to the architecture. We create designs for sculpted ornament that would go on the walls or on a door frame so that there is something more than just running trim, so that you get ornament and decoration that is part of the architecture."
When asked about the challenges of working in a modern classical style, Pennoyer responds, "I think that the challenge is not unlike the challenge that faces an architect working in a purely contemporary style. If the architect doesn't try to distill the plan and the program and the way the client wants to live into a simple plan, it's very hard to make beautiful architecture if you try to create rooms for every possible thing someone wants to do, or imagine that they'll do. So I think the sprawl of too many different kinds of rooms and all the sort of clich?d problems we see like the kitchen that is eighty feet long, or the excesses of house design really make it hard to design a beautiful house. We were lucky in this case to have a client who knew exactly what she needed and had very consistent goals. The challenge is reducing the palette, reducing the square footage, reducing people's wish list to a reasonable amount."
"One of the biggest challenges is providing for all the infrastructure, the heating, air conditioning, ventilation, and the lighting systems without having it undermine the architecture of the interior design. Those things are challenging because we want them to work perfectly but in a way that it can be invisible. Ultimately we don't want our clients to see or hear any of that, but we want them to be entirely comfortable and that's difficult."
Pennoyer works on both new and older buildings, without a particular preference for either one. "I wouldn't want to be stuck in one or the other. I think you learn incredibly powerful lessons from being forced to renovate and a lot of our work in the city, like the one you see with the arches, is really a new building behind an historical fa?ade, so it's not really restoration. I think you learn really good lessons by having to work within a limited footprint of a New York City townhouse and that one is only seventeen feet wide. In New York, a twenty foot wide house is considered really wide and a twenty-five foot wide house is almost considered a mansion. It teaches you to use resources sparingly and carefully. It's a great discovery to go out and be able to shape the proportion of a building yourself, and not be constrained. We're doing one now that's fifty feet wide and people can't believe that we actually get that opportunity."
Fine art is perhaps one of Pennoyer's most profound sources of inspiration. "I am absolutely inspired by sculpture and painting and looking at great art is one of my greatest joys in life. I think that it all goes back to some of the early architectural education when architects were studying in the same buildings as sculptors and artists and where architects first had to learn about sculpture and drawing before they could even be allowed to design buildings. I think the unity of the arts is behind everything I do here with my colleagues. We have a whole row of art books which are Italian art books that are adjacent to our books about Italian architecture, so we always are trying to pull together the artistic part and the interior decorating part."
When asked about some of his favorite artists, Pennoyer responds, "For sculpture, Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Paul Manship are two great American sculptors. In terms of paintings there is an artist who has an atelier near the architecture group that I'm involved with, and his name is Jacob Collins. He's an example of someone painting today in the classical style who I think is extraordinary." Jacob Collins is a leading figure in the contemporary revival of classical painting whose work has been widely exhibited in North America and Europe and is included in several American museums.
Pennoyer serves on the board of directors of a number of organizations concerned with architecture and the related arts including the Institute of The Classical Architecture & Classical America, The Morgan Library and Museum, Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation, and the 2 East 62nd Street Foundation. "I'm also on the national peer review for the GSA (U.S. General Services Administration) which is the government agency that builds all the government buildings, so I'm involved in the national jury for new buildings. This is a little bit like an architect being interested in art. If you really want to be a complete citizen of New York or of anyplace really, you have to think about the civic role of an architect, what can you do to have an impact on the place you live."
Pennoyer is co-author of The Architecture of Delano & Aldrich and The Architecture of Warren & Wetmore, both publications of W. W. Norton. He has a new book titled The Architecture of Grosvenor Atterbury that is due to be released next June.