Wid Chapman, of New York-based Wid Chapman Architects, comes from a rich tradition of art and architecture. His portfolio includes both commercial and residential design, including notable restaurant projects. He is also a teacher, writer, and lecturer, whose intellect and empathy infuse all of his projects, including this interview.
1. Describe your background and how you first became interested in design.
I grew up in a suburb of Boston. My father was-and still is-an architect and had a practice in Cambridge, and I used to go into his office all the time. It was a wonderful experience as a kid. Lots of bright, eager, young associates straight out of Harvard Graduate School of Design or Boston Architectural Center gave me plenty of attention. All those smells and textures that don’t exist anymore-mylar, ink, “pounce,” lead pointers, electric erasers, dry cleaning pads-have stayed with me as a strong reminder of those days.
My father studied with Walter Gropius at Harvard and my mother with Joseph Albers at Yale. After school, my father went to work at Gropius’s Cambridge firm, The Architects’ Collaborative (TAC), and my mother ended up there as Gropius’s color consultant, working on wonderful, colorful, large-scale tile murals for public projects. That’s where they met. Today, my mother’s a painter. In fact, she has a retrospective of her work up now in a Weston, Massachusetts, gallery.
All of this certainly suggests that design is “in my blood.” When my older sisters both went to architecture school-both practice today-it really became embedded in the family and yielded unending topics of conversation at the dinner table around the theme of architecture.
Two family trips to Europe in the seventies were profound. My parents took us to several countries with much focus on towns and villages and museums. What an eye-opener to see the world outside of our young American borders for the first time. Today, as a designer, architect, and educator, I’m keenly interested in the notion of figure/ground, positive and negative space. I’m sure it was these trips and learning about ancient European city plans that fostered this, as they’re the ultimate expression of figure/ground-time and the accretive, organic growth of ancient urban settings. I still have a print of the 1704 map of Brixten, Austria, a wonderful Tyrolean city, from that first trip, hanging on my bedroom wall.
2. Where were you educated? Was there a particular teacher who most impressed you? Who was it and why?
Initially, I did not have the same design bug that my sisters had. I was interested in painting, writing, and political science, particularly international affairs. So, I spent two years at a small New England college. Then, en route to a semester in France, the family lore is that I was filling out my Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) transfer application on the way to the airport and checked off the box that said “architecture,” which turned out to be binding. So, by the end of my stay in France, I was trying to decide between architecture at RISD or a poly sci track at the Sorbonne. The rest is history.
3. Who were your early design influences? Outside of school, was there someone who was a mentor? If so, what did you learn from him/her?
Well, my father of course. In fact, he had taught at Harvard, and it turned out he had a lot of opinions about the RISD pedagogy at the time. With Rudolpho Machada and Friedrich St. Florian heading the program, there was a heavy emphasis on the Italian Neorationalists-RossI and Grassi-and great interest in the Fascist era works of Speer and Terragni. For my father, you could not separate the work from the context of Hitler and Mussolini. So, I suppose he felt that there was some pedagogical Kool-Aid being consumed at RISD. In the end, I absorbed what I felt was appropriate to consider in these regards and ignored what was not, and I ended up with an excellent education.
And Remmert Huygens, a wonderful family friend my father met after TAC who was working with him at Marcel Breuer’s office in New York. Rem was from Holland and embodied this ultra-European sense of architecture and what it meant to be an “architect.” At the same time, he had been drawn to America as a child, looking at the works of Frank Lloyd Wright that were making the rounds in Europe at the time. He insisted that Wright was more influential on Bauhaus design than was ever acknowledged.
I grew up in Massachusetts because my father and Rem got a commission to design a private school campus there in the sixties. So, my father built our home up there, which was inspired by French farm houses with a courtyard and one-way pitched roofs. The neighbors complained it was a “chicken coop”. It was published in House Beautiful in 1968. My parents still live there, though it’s now surrounded by faux Shingle Style “McMansions.” And Rem built his house nearby, part Wright, part Swiss farmhouse, and part Bauhaus. It was published by Architectural Record in 1967. Rem went on to become a prominent Boston architect.
I did not think much about “interiors” while at RISD. My thesis project was a huge master plan of Charlestown, MA. But I do remember, even before RISD, being drawn to the work of the late Andrée Putman. I first recall seeing a very black and white, very graphic, residential project of hers in House & Garden in the early eighties. Years later, as chair of interior design at Parsons School of Design (now Parsons the New School of Design), I went to meet Ms. Putman at her Paris studio to confirm her receipt of an honorary degree from the school that May. She came to the school and, not only did we bestow the degree, but she fully engaged my students and their projects in their studio. That was a thrilling experience!
4. Was creating hospitality projects an early interest? Why? If not, when did hospitality become a viable career path?
I love the public quality of hospitality-the way you can influence people’s moods and experiences with design, in very social settings. It fascinates me. Our path in pursuing it has been cumulative.
About thirteen years ago, we were asked to design a French/Indian restaurant in Manhattan called Pondicherry. It was in quite a famous spot, under the Paris Cinema next to the Plaza Hotel on 58th Street. It had been a Gwathmey Siegel-designed restaurant called Shezan before that. We designed a very minimal space that was a new take on Indian restaurants at the time, after which we began to be approached by more and more Indian restaurant clients. This work increasingly became a significant part of our restaurant work, which comprises thirty separate commissions by now.
Then, hotels began to become part of our practice, and we were asked to design a hotel project in Wörthersee, Austria, on a beautiful lake. Right now, we’re working on a boutique hotel in Puerto Escondido, a charming surfing town right on the beach in Mexico. Construction on it will start once the economy picks up there and some of the strife cools down.
Puerto Escondido Rendering
We’ve also been working on several student housing projects for a particularly forward-thinking client. And we really approach these as hospitality, not institutional, projects. I find commons areas (cooking, dining, fitness, libraries, lounges, etc) very exciting. It’s extremely rewarding to see how this young constituency inhabits these spaces. The cooking facilities prove to be surprisingly social places these days.
St. George Student Cooking Area
4. Your office also does residential and other commercial projects. Where does hospitality fit into your overall portfolio? What are its unique challenges and satisfactions?
While the majority of our work is hospitality-related, I also enjoy the occasional residential client, as well. I think there’s so much overlap between hotels and residences today, particularly with city apartments. Affluent, well-traveled clients stay in well-designed hotels, so, in many ways, the standards for these spaces are set by those encounters.
5. Which of your hospitality projects are most memorable?
Working on the hotel project in Austria was fascinating. I was traveling to the small town of Klagenfurt, not so different in feeling to Brixen, which I mentioned earlier. The whole office culture was different. There were routine gestures of civility in the workplace, including shaking hands with all of our team members in the morning. I enjoyed sourcing product options in nearby Italy. And we discussed a cooling system that utilizes cold, deep lake water to air condition with local engineers-very enlightening, as it was not your typical, high-energy-consuming American HVAC solution.
A villa addition in Casa de Campo, Dominican Republic was a lot of fun.
Casa de Campo Villa Addition
Here at home, I’ve most enjoyed projects where we’re able to introduce strong spatial concepts. Restaurants are inherently “thematic” in their briefs. Some lean mostly on that theme, and some allow you merge it with spatial and more architectural concepts. Our design for Pranna, with its vocabulary of sculpted, dematerialized walls is a good example; and Tamarind Tribeca’s strong plan organization around its wonderful, soaring, existing columns, is another.
A recent project, SouthwestNY has fewer of those spatial concepts at work but was a rich study in materials- steel, zinc, concrete, reclaimed woods, handmade porcelain tiles, etc.
6. You also teach architecture at Parsons, the New School for Design. How long have you taught there? And how do students today differ from those when you were in school?
I’ve been teaching at Parsons for twenty years. Early on, for seven years, I was chair of the interior design department, which had just been revived after a twenty-year hiatus. Previously, it had been the oldest ID program in the country, and there was an interesting period when we were courting illustrious alumnae from the earlier era-Albert Hadley, Mario Buatta, etc. While it was fascinating to have their input, it soon became clear that the climate had changed dramatically from the days when immersion in classical historical periods and discussions of style and taste were paramount. Today at the school, interior design is merged with architecture, lighting, and product design studies under an uber department, the School of Constructed Environments. This provides a very exciting, cutting-edge atmosphere in which to teach. I’m an adjunct faculty member now, and my students are currently designing a ground-up elementary charter school in East Harlem with a very challenging program.
7. It’s often said that teachers learn as much from their students as students learn from their teachers. Is that true in your case?
I’d say that’s true. In teaching, you are forced to become extremely clear and succinct about your ideas. So, I absorb a tremendous amount in that process alone. And the students are incredibly driven and inventive. It’s wonderful to be around that energy.
Student Work by Dannia Ghalib and Joy Tchamitchian
8. A few years back, you visited Haiti shortly after their devastating earthquake. What were the circumstances of your visit? Tell us about the experience.
Yes. In January 2011, I went there to identify a site for my spring semester students to focus on. Much of Port Au Prince’s devastation came from the fact that, in the nineties, a combination of US embargos along with rampant government corruption and economic mismanagement in the country forced a generation of young and unemployed people, mostly men, to flee the countryside and move almost en masse into the city.
Growth happened so quickly that building oversight, which was already weak, became non-existent. The resulting structures were particularly vulnerable to the earthquake, during which 300,000 people perished. Hence, our site ended up being a rural hillside near the town of Jacmel, and the project was to design a sustainable town, ideally a model for a location where people in the city could relocate. It sounds utopian, but de-populating Port Au Prince is likely the key to any progress there.
With all of the devastation and despair (which frankly had existed long before the earthquake) I witnessed in Haiti, I also saw a clear sense of hope, pride and resourcefulness- whether it was the workman grinding down the rubble to make more concrete, the little boy with his intricate homemade kite, or the school girls leaving their temporary tent homes impeccably dressed for school
9. Architecture can be a very stressful profession. What do you do to relax? Hobbies? Travel. Tell us about your free time.
I love to travel but don’t have a lot of time for it, so it’s great when I have projects out of town. It’s most interesting when this work has been overseas, but a recent gut renovation of a 1980’s house north of Seattle on Camano Island, overlooking Puget Sound, allowed me to get to know a part of the US that I did not know well. Both the city with its remnants of “grunge” culture and a great organic food scene along with the nearby snowcapped mountains and San Juan Islands have made my trips out there very worthwhile.
I grew up sailing in southern New England. The family sloop is now owned by my older sister who lives in Maine. I try to get up there to sail the Maine coast at least once a season, too.
9. If you weren’t an architect, what profession would you like to have pursued?
Probably international relations, although I shudder to think that I might have become a civil servant like a foreign affairs officer or something.
11. What current/new hospitality projects (not your own) do you admire?
There are so many great projects being realized today by incredibly talented firms such as Bentel & Bentel, AvroKo, and Tony Chi, to name a few.
12. What’s next on your professional agenda?
In addition to continuing the work I’ve described, which I enjoy very much, I’m looking at ways that my design specialties can converge in new, beneficial ways. I’ve co-written two books with gerontologist Jeffrey Rosenfeld that begin to address a “hospitality” mindset toward residential design, which this is exciting to me. The first book is Home Design in an Aging World, published by Fairchild, and the other is Unassisted Living, published by Monacelli/Random House. The first was global and more “gerontological” in nature; the second looked at aging baby boomers and how they were anticipating aging.
The premise is that the baby boomers are not like their parents’ generation in any way. Vietnam, Woodstock, punk, and drugs made sure of that. What’s also clear is that they came of age during a consumer and design boom like none before. They know what they want, and they’re savvy about the design of environments. A majority-though not all-also have unprecedented purchasing power.
Amenities-and good design is a huge amenity-have come to be expected by baby boomers everywhere they go. And this is now carrying over to hospitals and, increasingly, to assisted living facilities, which are naturally growing in number. When it comes to communities for “retirement,” whatever that means today, boomers have a myriad of choices, and many are looking to create or join like-minded populations, from artists colonies and alma mater housing to ethnic-based communities and LGBT resorts such as the cutting edge BOOM in Palm Springs.
This whole arena interests me very much from both a research and practice standpoint, and I’m enthused about being a thought leader and activist in this trend.