It's just possible that Harry Bates and Paul Masi, AIA, hold the record for architectural partners with the biggest age difference between them. Bates, 79, was designing houses two decades before Masi was even born. During Bates' years of architecture school at North Carolina State University, the lineup of visiting professors included such luminaries as Frank Lloyd Wright, Marcel Breuer, Walter Gropius, and Buckminster Fuller—men who were long gone by the time Masi entered Harvard in the mid-1990s. One might question whether a septuagenarian and a Gen Xer can create buildings that speak the same language. But they can and they do—quite happily, it seems. These two are not only compatible, their work is turning heads. In the past few years, the Sag Harbor, N.Y.-based duo has captured national attention and a handful of design awards, including a recent Grand award from this magazine.
When asked, Bates, a southern gentleman with a friendly, laid-back demeanor, can't recall offhand the exact year he and Masi made their business partnership official, and it's clear that such details are trivial to him. What matters is that he's working harder now than he was at 65—and having more fun. Yet Bates' easygoing charm belies the discipline with which he runs the office, a light-filled space with 10-foot ceilings on the second floor of an old bank overlooking Main Street. Sure, this is a beach community, but you probably won't find employees wearing flip-flops on the job. The firm operates with the same professional efficiency that Bates insisted on when he had an office in Manhattan. “There's a sense of order that we communicate to clients,” Bates says. “We always wear our neckties to work. Even out here people understand and respect that.”
Masi and Bates have been practicing together full time for six years. In that span they've become known for a highly personalized design approach—one that results in precise, unexpected houses which tell a story about the people who live there. Another element of their success that quickly becomes obvious to those who hire them is their firm conviction that designing a house should be fun; otherwise, why bother? These talents suit their sophisticated clientele to a tee. While their commissions occasionally take them to other vacation hot spots like Cape Cod and the Caribbean, their base in New York's fashionable Hamptons provides a steady stream of well-educated, design-conscious clients ranging from writers and artists to lawyers and bankers, many of them from Manhattan and Los Angeles.
Masi himself was summering at his parents' house in Montauk, N.Y., in 1996 when he noticed, quite by accident, Bates' ad in the local paper. The way Masi tells it, he was opening the house for the season, about to use the newspaper to start a fire in the fireplace, when his eyes fell on the ad. On summer break from the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Masi wasn't looking for a job. Still, he figured he'd check it out and made an appointment. “Harry's experiences were amazing, and I was impressed that someone of his quality was out here,” says Masi, 34. “We had a lot of similar interests, and our sensibilities about living were in tune.” The feelings were mutual. “I just liked his enthusiasm, his youth, his spirit,” Bates says of Masi, “and I thought it would be a lot of fun to work together.” Masi worked for Bates that summer and the next, and after finishing graduate school he joined the firm permanently, becoming a partner shortly thereafter.
The pair's compatibility comes, in part, from the fact that they are both hardwired to look more toward the present than the past for inspiration. A native of Garden City on Long Island, N.Y., and the son of artists, Masi dates his early admiration for clean, restrained architecture to a house owned by friends of his parents—a glass box on a hill designed by Alan Chimacoff, AIA, in 1972. “I think I saw that it was a different way of living, and I liked it,” he says. “It was so different that it was almost experimental, and that's what really attracted me to it. I appreciate classical architecture, but it doesn't work with what we do.”
And while Bates respects its beauty, he, too, has always felt an intellectual disconnect from traditional architecture. Twenty years ago he was asked to design the renovation of a grand old Boston apartment that involved replicating plaster moldings. It was a fun project, he remembers, but totally foreign, and it was the only time he put molding on anything. “The decoration was very sumptuous, and I liked looking at it,” he says. “But you look at it and don't have any feeling that you had anything to do with it.”
exploratory architecture No doubt coming of age in the middle of the last century has influenced the way Bates thinks about design. He grew up in the hilly terrain of Gainesville, Fla., and remembers when Paul Rudolph began partnering with Ralph Twitchell in Sarasota, Fla., to design houses with poured-concrete floors, glass walls, and rooms that opened to terraces and gardens. In college at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Bates majored in bacteriology under a misguided notion that his father, a country doctor, wanted him to study medicine. But courses in art and archaeology rekindled his long-standing interest in architecture, and he went on to North Carolina State University in Raleigh, earning a bachelor's degree in architecture in 1952.
Fast-forward 42 years, and Masi was finishing up studies at the Catholic University of America School of Architecture and Planning in Washington, D.C. He did his fifth-year thesis at University College London, when Modernist architect Peter Cook was dean. After graduating in 1994, Masi accepted a job at Richard Meier & Partners Architects in New York City, where he gained rigorous training in how to run an office, how to put together a set of drawings, and how to work with an array of consultants and project types. Two years later, deciding he wanted to teach, Masi enrolled at Harvard for graduate study. There, he says, stylistic discussions never came up. Instead, he was encouraged to explore new ideas about how people live, to redefine what materials can do, and to programmatically change the way a house functions.
“A lot of the houses we work on are about the experience of living there, from taking a shower to being able to open up the entire wall of your living room,” Masi says. “It makes the day so much better when you're able to do these sorts of things, and I think modern architecture is conducive to that. You don't have any parameters, whereas if you're doing traditional architecture it's hard to break out of it without it becoming a little strange.”
Indeed, the partners' success has a lot to do with their willingness to defy conventions in the service of client, site, and program. The Amagansett, N.Y., house that Bates Masi designed for British-born novelist Caroline Upcher, for example, takes the live/work concept to an entirely new level. An offbeat box fitted with steel brackets, the house allowed Upcher, who was downsizing from an adjacent house, to realize her dream of living surrounded by her books—all 2,000 of them. In fact, it was one of the few requests she made when the architects asked her to write a letter describing how she lives. Her other requirement: that the house be built for $200,000, or $166 a square foot. Given the prohibitive cost of construction in the Hamptons, this seemed almost impossible, and Bates Masi might have said no. But the program intrigued them, and if ever a client and architecture firm were destined to work together, this was it: Bates had designed Upcher's original house in 1968, and Masi was her neighbor.