from past to present
All this from an architect who started his career designing formal neo-Palladian villas. After finishing graduate studies at Yale in 1980, Gorlin worked at I.M. Pei & Partners (now Pei Cobb Freed & Partners) for two years before heading to Italy on a Rome Prize Fellowship. “It was like I was reborn,” he says of the year abroad. “It was extraordinary to experience history and the landscape of the Italian villa.” Upon his return to New York City, Gorlin signed on with Kohn Pedersen Fox Architects for two years before setting up his own firm, Alexander Gorlin Architects, in 1987.
It didn't take long for Gorlin to break into a circle of power clients. Victoria Newhouse, wife of publisher S.I. “Si” Newhouse Jr., was the first to call. She saw an article he'd written on Le Corbusier's Governor's Palace in Chandigarh, India, and asked him to design a garden gate for her Palm Beach, Fla., house. That job led to Villa Cielo, a country house in Bedford, N.Y., for Grace Mirabella, who was editing Vogue at the time. Other high-end commissions followed: Villa Viare in East Hampton, N.Y.; Villa Jovis in Jupiter, Fla.; Villa Marittima on Long Island, N.Y.; a classical pool pavilion for fashion designer Adrienne Vittadini in Water Mill, N.Y.; and a long list of well-received projects at Seaside and in Manhattan.
Even in his classical period, Gorlin was able to see things with a fresh eye, making exceptions to the so-called rules and visual connections between odd ideas. Vincent Scully has pointed out that some of Gorlin's early country houses broke stride with classical scale in order to incorporate a lot of glass; thus, his transition to modernist architecture at Ruskin Place was not as abrupt as it appeared. In his introduction to the 1997 monograph Alexander Gorlin: Buildings and Projects (Rizzoli), Paul Goldberger observed that Gorlin seems determined to trace the history of architecture in his practice, “moving through it as if through the stations of the cross. If so,” he wrote, “this is a gesture motivated less by hubris than by enthusiasm, less by arrogance than by the belief that he can never truly understand architectural history until he has worked in every possible mode as a designer and not merely a scholar.”
To hear Gorlin tell it, the trajectory has, in fact, involved both a search for truth and the whims of his own imagination. After Cooper Union, “to practice somewhat more traditional work was, oddly enough, the rebellious thing to do,” he says. “But I've always been interested in that intersection between Modernism and classicism. History is a continuum. It's not that you simply change styles; profoundly basic principles are common to all architecture. Modern architecture can never replace these fundamental ideals. It also has a certain sense of gravity, rhythm, and order that's a reinterpretation of tradition.”
If eclecticism has served Gorlin well in traditional design, it also helps to keep his modernist work upbeat and original. “Mies' work was full of light, but there was a coldness to it,” he says. “I'm more interested in a sensual modernism, with coziness and livability.” Although the 40 percent of his work that's nonresidential has also garnered awards—among them the North Shore Hebrew Academy in King's Point, N.Y., and a renovation of the historic Swedenborgian Church in Manhattan—he's best known for his houses.
Like all good architects, Gorlin starts with client and site but then draws from precedents that may be historical, literary, or something else entirely. “Freud talked about how dreams have a façade, like a house,” he says. “You're combining fantasy and a sensual quality with architectonic sensibilities. It's about the object as a sculptural entity, and it has to do with internal consistency but being open to the site and embracing the functional and psychic needs of the client.” His hard-edged, glass-and-stone Rocky Mountain House in Genesee, Colo., has a cruciform plan that grew out of the owners' request for separate wings for them and for the children, but it also references the ancient Egyptian hieroglyph of a cross—a powerful symbol for marking a place on earth. That's why, although it sits on a small mountain, Gorlin thinks of it as an urban house. “When a house creates a very distinctive and powerful place, to me it's urban, whether it's in the country or the city,” he says.
Behind that street presence, however, Gorlin delights in creating a sanctuary that's special to his clients. “A house has to have an interior ambience that makes you feel at home,” he says. “It has to be filled with light and have spaces that are private and secluded. And, maybe because I grew up in a small apartment in Queens, I've found that the view out is essential to having a home that is a sanctuary.”
In Alexander Gorlin: Buildings and Projects, Scully wrote that “if his work teaches us anything, it is not to be dour about things in the high modern manner.” It will be interesting to see where Gorlin's prolific ideas take him next. But whatever his future houses look like, no doubt the work will be optimistic, in tune with his own intuition.