hall of fame:
f. cecil baker, aiacecil baker + partners
For a young architect in Philadelphia, 1972 was a bad year to be starting a business. There was an energy crisis, the U.S. federal deficit had topped $400 billion, unemployment hovered around 6 percent, and TIME magazine ran a cover with the question: “Is the U.S. Going Broke?” With no design work to support them, F. Cecil Baker, AIA, and the three architects he'd chosen as partners pooled their limited resources to buy an abandoned factory in a derelict part of town. Over the next year and a half, they rebuilt Candy Factory Court with their own hands, turning it into light-filled, modern townhouses that maintained the historic fabric of the urban neighborhood. The project put the firm, BRHB Developers, on the map, and the partners spent the next decade reinvigorating more than $30 million worth of real estate in Philadelphia's forgotten industrial corridors.
By 1982, coinciding with another deep recession, Baker was ready to pursue a more conventional design practice on his own. Soon after startup, he landed an office complex commission in Austin, Texas, that got him through the trough. And he used the slow time to teach himself CAD. “Recessions have defined my career,” he says. It's prescient, then, that the residential architect Hall of Fame award comes at a moment when the economy is in another financial wringer. Coincidentally, his professional leadership points the way toward survival in tough times. Those challenging early years helped shape the design ethic of Cecil Baker + Partners, which is rooted in resourcefulness, simplicity, and a strong sense of place.
Among the multiple strands of Baker's success is his penchant for finding the abstract patterns in urban architecture. He picks up on the city's Colonial elements, but there's nothing Colonial about his buildings. In that regard, Baker likens himself to a sculptor who, rather than approaching a piece of stone with preconceived notions of what it should be, looks into the nooks and crannies to see what's there. “The form of the architecture is already buried in the stone, so context is enormous,” he says. “I don't bring a vision to anything. I let everything into my palette and connect all that to the framework in which we live. I turn everything upside down and try to distill it to its basic ideas and proportions.”
Baker has become an architect's architect, admired by his peers for making buildings that fit in, yet are slightly askew. A hallmark of his residential work—from low-income housing to a recent penthouse without a budget cap—is its mix of calming symmetry and restless asymmetry. It could be a metaphor for the city itself, in which a streetscape becomes an ordered backdrop for the quirky energy of urban life. Ed Bronstein, AIA, a local architect-turned-painter, is a fan of Baker's work. “There's a wonderful subtlety to everything Cecil does,” Bronstein says. “I love his architecture because it compels you to look closely and enjoy every detail of it.” He adds: “A group of us got together every month for many years to talk about common problems with our practices. I never got a sense of competition from him.”
mystery and simplicity
Tall, soft-spoken, and refined, Baker is the son of British parents who met on a boat sailing to Argentina, married, and settled in the arid high plains of the Andes foothills. He traces his architectural awakening to Los Alamos, an 1890s Argentine camp house that his parents' friends used as an artist's salon. Baker was amazed by the simple, rectangular building framed by verandas, its lovely tall rooms and thick adobe walls. “I sensed the sensuality of the house,” he says. “It placed value on mystery and yet, on simplicity. It stayed with me, and when I came to this country and saw Luis Barragán's architecture, there was an ‘aha' moment.”
Baker came to the United States to attend Williams College in Massachusetts and went on to graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied with Louis Kahn. After finishing up in 1967, he stayed in town to accept a job offer from Louis Sauer, FAIA, a prolific housing architect with projects across the country. Sauer was the mentor who taught Baker the most important lesson of his career: to set up architecture with readily available building components. “What I learned from Lou is this fundamental practicality,” he says. “From those standard systems you create modules, and these modules became the tools by which you then generated the entire project. The architecture was unquestionably modern but had this geometric rigor that brought out the joy in practicality. If you're not cutting every 2x4, you're saving money to be put into some other generosity on the project.”
It's a philosophy Baker still brings to every project. He calls it “spending money on the sunny side of the drywall,” and in adaptive reuse it means embracing the poetry of what's there instead of, say, tearing out walls and inserting steel beams that are hidden by drywall. At the candy factory, for example, the chocolate vats became part of the architecture, and rooms were made to feel larger through the use of what he terms “quiet theater”—diffused light, borrowed views, materials that blur the vertical and horizontal planes, and spaces that alternate between restlessness and repose.
Baker has found his passion in designing architecture that makes art out of the gritty details of everyday life. “I am invested in the simple shapes of kindergarten architecture,” he wrote for a recent lecture. “This landscape has the power to lift us above the complexities and contradictions, the superfluous clutter of our lives. Simplicity has the potential to resolve the visual chaos around us.”
Over the years, local community leaders have enlisted this magical touch. In 1996, Paul Levy—then head of the Central Philadelphia Development Corp.—looked across the city and saw a profusion of vibrant sidewalk storefronts with abandoned real estate above. Retailers, with no use for the second story, had removed the stairs to get an extra bit of square footage. That meant leaks went unnoticed, and the buildings were rotting from the top down. Levy asked Baker to do a study for 10 of the buildings to determine how their upper floors might be made into residential use. The plans were financially unfeasible for investors with modest purchasing power, but the seed had been planted. Levy went on to propose a tax-abatement program that would lift property taxes on the renovated buildings for 10 years. Its enactment was followed by other initiatives; banks began seeing the neighborhoods as good places to put their money, and thousands of buildings were brought back to life.
Baker's enthusiasm for such collaborative work continues. He lives a few blocks from his office on Walnut Street, just off Washington Square. In a firm of six employees, including partners Nancy Bastian, AIA, and Eric Leighton, AIA, residential projects comprise about a third of the work. Whether it's an unassuming West Philadelphia row house or a luxury penthouse apartment, “Cecil is a wizard at creating spaces that inspire the people who live in them,” Bastian says. “We worked on an awful apartment building that had a fire. The units were pretty substandard, and he figured out a scheme so that each of the 47 units would have something that makes it special. Maybe not a good view but a lot of light—something that made it memorable in some way. There's a real thoughtfulness and care brought to anything Cecil does. It keeps us all on our toes.”