Interview with John Gillis
Excerpts from this interview appear in the Fall 2007 issue of Kaizen, CEE’s newsletter. Below is the full interview.
John Gillis has been a practicing architect in New York City for more than two decades. He has designed hundreds of residential, commercial, educational, and institutional projects throughout the United States. Gillis has also written widely on architecture and art for publications such as Economic Affairs (London), Interiors, Aristos, The Freeman, and Reason.
Kaizen: Why did you decide to become an architect?
Gillis: Well, I was interested in buildings from the time I was a small kid. By the time I decided to become an architect, at about age twelve, I had already been focused on things that I didn’t quite know were architecture, but were architecture. I just loved building things when I was a little kid, like various specialized toys, and making up things out of materials. I was interested in building as such.
My earliest memories are of buildings like the church that was visible from my window when I was three years old—it was a big, prominent structure. When I got bored in school as a young child, I used to sit and draw from memory the plans of buildings that I was in. I didn’t know that they were plans—I didn’t fully understand what was going on, but it was interesting for me to be able to look from above and see the organization of the house I lived in, or the school I was going to, or other buildings that I had been in, wondering how it all worked, drawing the next room, and seeing that things were organized in a certain way.
So I was fascinated by all those things. And then, when I was in seventh grade, going into eighth grade, I realized that I wanted to build—that that was what I wanted to do. I remember telling my parents that I wanted to build. I didn’t even call it architecture, because it wasn’t yet a case of clearly wanting to do something artistic. Instead, it was really a case of wanting to create buildings, and it was all in one big ball. It wasn’t organized or clear, but as soon as I realized that that was what I wanted to do, and because I was always a big reader, I started looking for books about architecture.
I realized quickly that there was a whole issue about how you organize things, how things look, as well as the mechanics of the function, materials, construction, and costs. It appealed to me because it was almost everything in life rolled up in one—it was artistic; it was business; it was engineering; and it was practicalities. My goal was, from that point on, totally clear, and I never changed. I went to technical high school to study architecture and then onto university architectural programs.
Kaizen: Who were your architectural inspirations?
Gillis: The first one was definitely Frank Lloyd Wright, But that was partly luck. When I was looking for books on architecture, I went to my favorite local book store, and I picked up two books. One was The Natural House by Frank Lloyd Wright—in paperback, and at that time recently out; it was almost a new book. At the same time I picked up The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, because it was about an architect.
I was interested in Wright’s things initially because of what he was saying in the book about the integration of everything, that there shouldn’t be a separation of form and function, and that there should be an integrity about the design process. As I got some other information about him and saw some of the buildings that he was doing, I loved that too. I lived in Chicago, which is a very big Wright location, so I was able to go visit some of his places and experience them in the flesh, which cemented my love for some of his things. So that was my first architectural inspiration.
After that, the other two influences are more general. First were some aspects of Japanese architecture, which also connects to Wright, because he loved a lot of things Japanese. I did too, but not the classical Japanese architecture from hundreds of years ago. Rather, I liked the simple residential architecture. It wasn’t the stuff of temples and so on; it was just clean lines and simple spaces that were detailed, orderly, and geometric—it had nice elements to it.
The other influence was the Italian Baroque period. By the time I was in my twenties, I had taken some trips to Italy and discovered the Italian Baroque period, which is in the seventeenth-century—the work of Guarini, Borromini, and Bernini. The common thread between them and some of their contemporaries was their focus on creating an architecture that really had emotion in it, that had meaning and impact. They were all related to the Counter-Reformation of the time, in the Catholic Church, where there was a philosophy change. They wanted to excite the emotions of the faithful, and one of the means was through art, and, specifically, architecture. So these architects, whether independently or as a part of that idea, were changing architecture from the Renaissance styles, which were very classical, orderly, calm, and dignified, to a more excited, passionate, raptured architecture. That eventually led to excesses, to Rococo, which was totally uninteresting. But the Baroque period was a freeing up of the form, character, and spaces in architecture—just more immediately exciting. This was as opposed to the Renaissance, which was great in its own way. There is great dignity and repose in Renaissance works, or later, in Neo-Classical works that were done in the nineteenth-century. But the period of the seventeenth-century was one of great excitement. The focus was on making buildings stir you up.
So my influences were all of these: the Japanese aspect, which isn’t meant to stir you up, and is, instead, very orderly, but in a different way from the order of the Renaissance; and the Baroque—which is also great. Then there’s Wright’s approach to making buildings that are never torn asunder by focus on function or focus on form only—making sure that the package is complete.
Kaizen: Why did you decide to start your own architectural firm rather than working for an established firm?
Gillis: First of all, in architecture, you do have to work for other firms initially. In order to get licensed in the United States (and many other places), you have to be an apprentice for a few years. You have to have at least three to four years of apprenticeship before you can even apply for a license and take the test. I did that after going to school. I worked for several firms during that period. Then, I eventually took the test and got my license.
The answer to the question is that I started my own firm because I knew that I would be very unlikely to find an existing firm where their interests and aesthetics would match what I wanted to go after. It just worked better for me to be in charge of my own work, as opposed to having to discuss it or fight with partners about it. There is enough difficulty in doing good architecture, just from the standpoint of the effort you have to put forth to make sure that contractors can accomplish what you want. Having partners in a firm is not impossible—and there certainly have been cases where architects have had partners and they created great stuff—but it is just another step, and it is harder. Unless you find the right partner, it doesn’t work.
It would be great, in a sense, to have a firm where there were some partners who were more interested in controlling the details of the business and management and some who were more interested in the mechanics of the business, like the construction aspect. There are firms like that, where there are guys who are specialists. There’s the designer, the construction guy, and the management guy, and they split it all up. But those firms tend to be, ultimately, not very good. They tend to be boring in what they end up doing. There are occasions where some guy comes in and is given free reign to do what he wants to do. But I did not find that circumstance, so I just had to do it on my own.
Kaizen: Some successful entrepreneurs do a great deal of planning ahead of time—while others jump in and work out the details as they go along. When you started, how important and lengthy was the planning stage?
Gillis: I can answer that two ways—one is from the classical business standpoint: The planning was extremely low or none. Architecture, as a business, is very difficult because you are mostly doing one-off projects. It’s not like you’re in a business where you’re selling item A, and you’re interested in selling, first, a thousand of them, and then ten thousand of them, and then a million of them. Every project you do—unless you become a rote, standard designer—tends to be very different. You do one like this, one like that; and they’re very, very different. So you can’t plan in the way that a regular corporation or business would.
What happened with me, once I was able to get my license and get out on my own, was that I was still doing projects for other firms but as a consultant. Then as I got my own projects, I would do those as part of the time I was spending doing architecture. But when I would get a house commission, I would reduce the amount of work I was doing for other firms and spend the time doing the commission. So there was this back and forth, slowly, until I got to the point that I was doing all of my own work. There was a gradual transition, because I didn’t have the money or the means to just stop working for other people, just sit there and wait for clients to appear, or even search them out. It had to be a transition. As I got commissions and money came in, I was plowing it back into renting office space, abd eventually into hiring people. And as more work came in, I did more of that.
Architecture is a highly variable business, because you never know when clients are going to appear. It goes up and down. You can’t plan for a regular cash flow, you can’t make quarterly reports to anybody, and you can’t make future plans.
But in another sense, in a very metaphorical sense, my career was planned for a long time, because of the stuff I said to you earlier. I had been planning since I was twelve that this was what I was going to do as my business, as my life. All of the schooling, all of the practice on drawing and designing that I did, getting my license, and apprenticing was all towards having my own firm. In that sense, I was planning for a long time—but only in that general way.
Kaizen: Starting your own business is also a gutsy move. Leaping into the unknown and dealing with the fear of failure are challenges for most entrepreneurs. How did you deal with them?
Gillis: I never really thought much about it because I was focused on being an architect. When you’re young and just getting started, you haven’t yet done any fully independent commissions, or you have done just a couple of small ones. As you do more of them and as they grow in size, and complexity, and responsibility—even though you’ve had experience working for another firm—when you do it all yourself, there is always this “push” to the psychology of it. It was an issue of whether or not I could do it, now that I didn’t have someone to back me up on certain things. So the only sense of psychological difficulty I found in those early times came from saying, “Okay, I’m now doing this large building that I’ve never done before. Can I actually come up with a solution, an integrated design that satisfies where I want to go? Or, was I a one-trick pony? Maybe I can’t do it again.” I suppose it is similar with people who write a book. If they do well and they are happy with it, they wonder, “Do I have another?” So, there was that aspect, where I would be sitting with a blank paper before I have the theme and the idea sorted out, and what I want to do to make it all work with the functions I have to accomplish, and I’d wonder, “Can I really succeed at this?” But after a few of those cases, and always coming up with a good solution that I was happy with, I didn’t have that problem anymore.
So there was that question of uncertainty and anxiety from a creative standpoint. It wasn’t really from a business standpoint, although there was always in the background: “Am I going to have enough money from the work I’m doing? Will I have more clients?” When you finish a project there has to be another client behind it, and it doesn’t happen in an orderly way. It is highly dependent on the economy, because architecture is, to a large extent, dependent on the real estate industry and whether people are building or not—whether there is money out there that people want to spend, and whether there are new businesses, office spaces, homes, hospitals and all sorts of things. There have been periods in my career when things have slowed down a lot, and that was because there was hardly anybody building in the area. There are tight times, but you just have to stick them out.
Kaizen: Did you have mentors to give you advice on financial matters and marketing?
Gillis: No, not on financial matters, and only in a very minor way on marketing. I picked up an idea here and there from seeing what other firms were doing. But most of what other firms were doing didn’t apply to what I wanted to do, because the vast majority of architectural firms are businesses—they focus on providing building services. They are not also focused on being artists. Being an artist isn’t exactly a regular business model. As I looked around, there were a number of books out about how to market architectural services and professional services, but they were always focused on becoming a specialist in an area: to be a retail architect you would go after retail clients, or you would go after different segments of the economy. My interest was really in being a generalist. I would take on any kind of building of any sort.
So my practice has been very broad-based. But it is a tough road to go on in the sense that most clients in a given area want to know that you are a specialist—that you are good in that area. Breaking into each area is a tough thing at first because people want to see some connection to what they are doing. So, as I was practicing and working for several firms, I was doing schools, performance bases, houses, retail space, making sure that I could point to all of those areas when someone came along and was interested in having me do one of those kinds of things. I could say, “Well, I’ve done two of those before, although it is not like I’m the world’s expert in those areas.” But the question you have to answer for yourself and your client is: Do you want someone to give a new look at problems you want to solve for your business, or do you just want an off-the-shelf solution? Clients are self-selective in that way. Some will walk away because they just want some standard thing. But others who want something that they hope will be different and more interesting than what is out there will sometimes pick me.
So there was no magic bullet to marketing—no one I could look to for a solution, for a way to go. It is very much word-of-mouth in the general sense—people saying things to one another. It is also someone seeing an article that I wrote or seeing something that was published about me and then coming to me. In that sense, it is a difficult business because it isn’t as active a marketing practice as some other businesses are. I can’t just go out and drum up business and put a big push out there in the marketplace to get the business. I do, however, do one thing that very few architects seem to do—I send out photographs on big postcards, with little descriptions giving the intellectual backgrounds of various projects. That show what I’ve been doing and keeps anyone I know—any connections, business or personal—aware of what I am doing. It creates some tentacles out there in the world.
Kaizen: How did you get started? How did your first significant commission arise?
Gillis: It came up in connection with what I was saying before. When I was doing my apprenticeship, I didn’t actually work as an employee for other architectural firms, for the most part. I was an independent contractor. Financially, it worked out better for me, and also it gave me a certain degree of independence. If I didn’t want to continue, or it was something I didn’t like, it was easier to separate and move on.
Anyway, I was working for one firm as a consultant, and they did a lot of apartment buildings. One of their clients, for whom they were doing a big two-hundred-unit apartment building, wanted to build a house for his daughter and son-in-law. Since he was a contractor, he bought a piece of land in upstate New York and went to the firm I was working with and said, “I want to do a house.” But they didn’t want to do it, because that wasn’t what they did—they were specialists. Well, he knew me because I had been working on one of his apartment buildings, and he knew that I had some residential background. I guess he talked with the principals of the firm and said, “I want to talk to John about this because you are not interested.” They said that it was no problem. So I took the commission to do this fairly large house on this really lovely piece of property upstate.
That was the first time I was actually able to open an office, rent some space, hire some people, and it was within the same space as the firm I was working with—I rented space from them. That is not an uncommon tradition in various professions, like law or architecture. There will be several firms who share space. And, because of the ups and downs of the business, you end up renting more for a while, not on a long-term lease but for a shorter-term situation. So I took some space from them and hired some people. Then I began working on a couple of other, smaller projects.
Kaizen: New York City is an intensely competitive real estate and development market. Did this make your start there more or less difficult?
Gillis: I can’t easily answer that because I don’t have a comparison that I can make. I thought about it at times. I lived in Chicago and Arizona for a while and thought about those markets and what they would have been like, but I almost think that they would have been tougher just because they seem to be more closed. It seemed harder to break into getting clients in those areas. But I’m not really sure that that is true. There’s a likelihood that I would have succeeded there as well.
What happened in New York is that there were usually, at these firms where I was consulting, projects they didn’t want to do—they weren’t interested in, because they weren’t big enough or it wasn’t their area of interest. And because I wasn’t an employee but an independent contractor, they looked at me differently. So they would say, “Okay John, talk to this guy and see if you are interested in doing this project, because we don’t want to do it.” At several firms, I was getting work like that for a couple of years. That helped me to establish some connections to people in the business.
That might have happened in other places, I don’t know. I always felt that Chicago—even though I knew Chicago very well—was a very closed place, in the sense that the firms I worked with there were very rigid and controlling. I’m not sure that they would have offered that kind of thing to a consultant: “Okay, here, you can do this on the side on your own.” Actually, there is an anecdote in connection with that. Wright was either fired or caused Louis Sullivan, his mentor and employer, to get mad at him because Wright was working on the side while working for Sullivan. I guess he wasn’t supposed to, although I don’t know if it was a contractual relationship; it was probably an expectation that he not do that. So, when Sullivan found out, he got very upset about it. I think it actually led to their break.
Kaizen: Many people feel awkward about selling themselves and their products or services. How do you get past the awkwardness of marketing yourself?
Gillis: I never felt awkward about it. I felt a certain amount of shyness, just because I was never schooled in being a speaker or a good rhetorician. I had to learn those skills along the way, and that made me, looking back, not a great presenter sometimes. But I was enthusiastic about what I wanted to do, and I think that showed through most of the time and succeeded most of the time. I think that because I had those ideas I wanted to accomplish in reality, I never felt any specific problem marketing myself or pushing myself. That’s what I was assuming people wanted—they wanted a particular outlook, and the question was whether or not I had what they wanted.
Usually, by the time you’ve met someone, then gotten to a point where they want you to do an initial design, you have an idea of whether it is going to work out or not. There were times when I wasn’t sure if it would work out because I was still unsure about their interest in what I was doing. It wasn’t a case of my feeling that it was psychologically difficult for me to make this presentation, but it was a question of when I make this presentation and after it is done, will they simply say, “Oh, that’s not what I’m looking for.” And I would sometimes say, in a presentation like that, “This may not fit you, because I’m really not sure where your mind is at about this design or topic or approach—and this may be too wild or too unusual for you, but here it is.” Usually people are wowed and say that it was even more than they were thinking of, but it is where they want to go and so they are happy with it.
Kaizen: In architecture, you have to sell yourself as someone competent in engineering, construction, and business—and as someone who has a creative vision. In your experience, have clients sought you because of your architectural vision, or has it been word-of-mouth recommendations, or has it been that you have sought clients by marketing yourself and convincing them that your architecture is what they want?
Gillis: The interesting thing about architecture is that it is a melding of more than one category: it is artistic and it is engineering, it is functional and it is business. Different clients over the years have come to me for different reasons. That has helped to sustain me because there certainly have been dry spells when there weren’t any clients, or very few who wanted me specifically for the design and architectural vision that I have. But people would come through some other source, some word-of-mouth thing, where they were really interested in construction expertise, and I would perform services like that. That was the focus. You could always look at architecture as a business.
In a perfect case, everything is melded and you’ve got 50-50, form and function. But there are times when someone really comes with a functional problem and there isn’t much of a design solution needed. It is mainly a functional or construction issue. Sometimes clients came to me just for that, so I would give them those solutions. There were other times when there were developers who came to me almost completely for my form and my design abilities, because they already had an architect who was doing standard, cookie-cutter buildings for them—apartment buildings or some other category. But they realized that they needed to think—they were now in a new location, and they couldn’t likely sell their apartments if they didn’t have some new, special quality. They realized that they couldn’t just do a bland, boring box; they had to have something that had character. So they would hire me to design the overall building and shape, but they would have someone else, who was their house architect, do the mechanics of dealing with the building department, dealing with the contractors, and so forth. So there has been a wide variety along the spectrum from pure design to pure construction.
Kaizen: Do you have a preference for pure design or pure construction?
Gillis: I always like to do it where it is all together, because that’s really how I accomplish the most interesting designs—by having construction techniques that are based on what is available out there and what can be done, but that have a twist or a new innovation on how to accomplish something. For example, while we are sitting here, look at this fireplace, just to the left, and at the end of the plaster wall. It has all of these little, vertical lines. In modern design, in modern construction techniques, that is usually very difficult to do—it is very labor-intensive. So someone might look at that and say, “My god, that was really expensive.” Except that I found a company that makes a metal form that is exactly that shape and is built right into the plaster. The guy slaps it on there, just as he does a regular corner bead on sheet rock on gypsum board, and finishes it very simply. It takes maybe a few minutes more than a regular corner. It is that kind of thing that is a construction detail—a construction fact—but it really has an effect on the visual result.
Kaizen: Clients don’t always see eye-to-eye with architects’ visions and sometimes there are differences over details. How do you handle it when your views diverge from your client’s? On what kinds of issues are compromises possible for you, and what kinds of things are non-negotiable?
Gillis: You can put conflicts or differences of view into two categories, roughly. One is details. Two is form and function. The big issues get resolved at the beginning, when the initial design is done and I’ve solved all of the clients’ functional interests. I present what I want to do and they look at it. If there is some functional aspect that should be adjusted, that should be different in some way, then I usually just rework something on the design—that’s not something that is difficult to do. And it is not a conflict in any fundamental sense; it is just a realization that—once the design got further along in making their theoretical needs concrete—they realized that there was some imbalance, that they should have more space or a shape or something. So I make those changes. Usually the design has enough flexibility and modularity that you can make those kinds of changes. But if there is something central to the design, connected to something central in their functional needs, and they are now changing that, I say to them: “Well, if you want that really changed—that significant, central, functional issue—then it is going to impact the design in this way.” Sometimes they will then say, “Well, no, we don’t want to affect that, we’re okay with the way it is.”
So there is a rational process of sorting those things out and making sure that they understand the consequences of any changes like that. If, on they other hand, they were to say, “Oh well, I just don’t like the whole concept” or something important about the concept, then we wouldn’t have a deal—it would be over. But unless I’m selectively misremembering, I don’t think I’ve ever actually had that happen.
By the time somebody has come to me and commissioned me to do something, both of us, I think, have a reasonable belief that what I come up with will be something they are interested in. That came up a few years ago. A client came to me wanting a big house done. I gave him my fee, which is already broken down into components: schematic designs, further design development, and construction drawings and so forth. I said, “When I give you the basic design, if you don’t like it, then we can stop right there.” That put a very clear demarcation on the fee structure going forward. He said, “What if I don’t like it at all? Will you do another one?” I said, “Yes, if there is some misunderstanding, then we can do that. But that has never actually happened to me.” I don’t know if he took that to be a kind of arrogance, but it was a fact. And when I did the design for him and his wife, they were perfectly happy. So there were never any issues.
Regarding the little issues, which are important because there always are little things that come up—whether it is choice of material or color or what happens to a corner or how the furniture lays out in a particular area—my attitude is: I usually succeed in convincing clients that the way I was approaching it does work the best for the situation. There are times when one or two other alternatives are just as good and I have no problem with a variation. Part of that is, when you do an architectural design that is clear enough and strong enough as an organic entity, then certain little differences or changes in the details don’t really have a fundamental impact on what you see. I mean, they all have importance, and as you look around here, there is a continuation of certain kinds of details that keep repeating, and it wouldn’t be the same if I hadn’t done this or that. But if one of them had been changed, as long as it was in keeping with the overall theme, the visual ideas being expressed would not be a degradation. I select the details, and they are very important to me, but I also realize that there can be variations among those details, in the same way that there can be variations in the music that a composer composes.
It used to be—in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries—that composers understood that when their works were performed, there were little sequences where the performers would do riffs and elaborations on a particular theme that weren’t written into the composition. In fact, various composers would often perform their own pieces and do their own riffs. Sometimes they would be recorded on paper, sometimes not, but those were just variations on the theme. So if you ever have conflicts with a client about these little things, sometimes you convince them that it should stay like this, or show them that there is a variation that works perfectly. Rarely do I have problem with its becoming a conflict that is not resolvable. The overall spatial, material, and schematic issues have been already settled.
Some architects will get crazed when something comes out not so perfectly because of a construction mistake by a contractor, sub-contractor, or worker—because they are so focused on the idea that details are everything in their design. Whereas my focus is on the idea that theme and the major composition are the keys—then you work down to the details. So, if some little detail is wrong, it doesn’t matter that much. If someone comes into a room or looks at the front of a building and it has this very clear-cut character to it, then if there is some little mistake in one aspect of it: a) they will probably never know it; and b) it is too small to be focused on. So, the little things are important, but at the same time they don’t usually kill the project.
Kaizen: Looking back on the early part of your career, what was the most difficult part?
Gillis: If I were to characterize anything as “difficult,” it would be a combination of getting started with enough background so people will be willing to come to you, and being able to have something to present so that you can say, “This is what I do.” Connected to that is finding enough clients to have enough money to live. They are just the normal start-up problems that everyone has—do you have enough of a résumé in the form of buildings or designs that have been completed or that aren’t completed, but are visually clear enough that you can show people what you do? And, getting your way of doing things spread around so that the one percent or one-tenth of one percent of the people out there who will respond to it will come to you.
Kaizen: And what was the most rewarding aspect of starting your own business?
Gillis: Very simple—getting beautiful buildings and spaces built.
Kaizen: Buildings can be utilitarian and functional, but as architecture, they can also express values and metaphysical themes—how does architecture do that?
Gillis: Well, there is the ability to use your normal human capacities, to scan and enjoy the relationships of materials and forms and lines. There are also differences in what you want to accomplish with different places and times. For example, you can create a space which is very calm and soothing by means of what you do with the materials and the shapes you use. If you were trying to accomplish that—if you were trying to create a little world, a metaphysical effect, an emotional effect that would say to people as they came into the space, “This is a place where you can be in repose, a place where you can relax from uncertainties or things that were bothering you,” you would not do it by having all kinds of random shapes that would be troubling and disorienting to you. You would instead have shapes and materials that have a simplicity, an orderliness, to them. They might be complex in geometry and pattern, but it would be similar, from this kind, to this kind, to that kind, and on different surfaces. So, in your mind, even if you weren’t focusing on it, if you were just scanning the space while sitting in it, the thought, subliminally, would be “Oh, yeah . . . this is like this, this is like that.” You vaguely enjoy that there are perceptual similarities; they’re not discordant, which would make your perception stand up and say, “What’s going on here? Why can’t I make sense out of this?”
Or suppose that you want, when you walk into a space, to have a sense of uplift and excitement and the thrill of life. Then you make the walls have a certain geometric undulation, as the Baroque architects do so well, with shapes and spaces curving out and curving in—in a way that isn’t just random, bogus movement, but has a geometric orderliness to it. There might also be a use of light. Because you want to create a sense of uplift and excitement, you’ll have light from the outside, from the sun, coming in certain areas to highlight these walls or arches or ceilings, to keep your head up. They tend to force you, as you walk in the room, to rise up and look to a higher place.
In a strange way, it is like when you are training a dog. Some trainers realize that if a dog is naturally unhappy or fearful about circumstances around him, a physical way to make him change his behavior is to lift his tail or head up so that he physically realizes that he is in the posture he has when he is feeling in better condition—when he isn’t fearful or anxious. If you can visualize an unhappy or fearful dog, his head is down, his tail is down, he’s shrunken. On the other hand, when he is happy and bright and feeling good, his head is going to be held up, his tail will be up and wagging. And you can actually, with a dog, start to make him feel that way—having a converse effect on his psychology by having his physical condition be like that. So, going back to architecture, you can control or affect the way people react to a space by having light coming in certain areas or having different dark and light materials placed in a way that people tend to want to move forward, rather than being static in one place. Or people want to scan with their eyes, feeling better about the environment that they are in. Those are ways that you can affect their mental state, and that is what architecture, in its best form, is about—creating a space, creating buildings that combine the ideal and the real.
You are creating a mini-world. It is an art unlike the other visual arts, such as painting or sculpture, where you are representing reality. In those, you’re doing this slightly artificial thing because you are doing something on a two-dimensional surface or you’re doing it in marble or bronze; you’re representing some aspect of reality—you’re trying to present some great vision of some scene or person in a portrait. In architecture, the metaphysical effect is that you’re actually creating a little world, a new metaphysics, by the manipulation of materials and forms and spaces. You have the unique effect of creating this new reality.
Most people don’t think of architecture that way, though. They haven’t been to buildings that do that to them. If you live on Main Street, Anytown, USA, most of the buildings weren’t designed that way—they weren’t intended that way. Sometimes, even in small towns, there will be buildings like that, where they, either intentionally or unintentionally, have some real impact on your emotions. But most people haven’t experienced that very often in their lives, so it isn’t important to their lives. In a way it is no different from the fact that most people haven’t really been interested in or experienced great paintings, great sculpture, or great music because they haven’t been exposed to it, or they just haven’t focused on it. As children or adults they will go to the museum when they go to the big city, but they won’t have the mental equipment because they haven’t really paid attention to art and cannot respond to those works. Even in those cases, though, occasionally there will be some great work that will be just right, and it will smack them in the face in a good way. Then they will react to that, wonderfully—whether they will be happy or sad or whatever—but unless they are introspective about it, art will not become a big part of their life—they won’t keep pursuing it. It is usually only a small chunk of the populace that says, “Hey, this is really important to me, so I want to know more about this. I want to look at more paintings by this person, or sculpture by that person, or listen to this music or go to those ballets.”
Kaizen: One of your heroes, Louis Sullivan, is famous for saying “Form follows function.” What does that mean in your work?
Gillis: What he meant, and what it properly does mean, is that the design of a building should satisfy the functions, the practicalities, and why it is being built. What he was reacting to was the nineteenth-century world of architecture—and the earlier eighteenth-century stuff as well—where architects were focused on simply creating a certain classical form in buildings. They would say, “Okay, this building, school, or financial institution, should have a Pantheon front on it. It should look like the Greek temples.” Then they would just fit the windows, doors, and floors into that strait-jacket notion of what it should look like. Sullivan said that you think about the function, then you create the form—the outside of the building, the inside spaces—that works with those functions. The best result is that those forms express, or make clear, those functions.
So, for example, say you are doing an office building that is a multiple-story building with a bunch of floors. Functionally, it has a bunch of floors and a lot of offices, and it has a lot of lighting. So what you would tend to do is something that would show this pattern of many floors and many different sections of space within it. On the outside of the building, you’d see a lot of windows; you’d see floor levels; you’d see the columns that support them; you’d see, especially, the structure, which is a very important part of the function—that is what holds it up! By contrast, let’s say that you were doing an auditorium or a theatre where you have one giant space and a lobby, and it doesn’t have windows. You wouldn’t create a building that has a bunch of fake windows, with the idea that we simply want it to look like it has windows. Instead, you would create a large, closed form, somehow shaped in a way that matched the auditorium: sloped seats, a stage, and, above the stage, a fly loft where all of the scenery goes. In modern architecture, architects following the approach of form follows function, have tended to express that shape—that there really is this big stage with a big structure above it for storage, and not try to hide it in a big, rectangular box. That is form follows function.
Wright came up with a variation on that which was a better answer than that of his mentor, Louis Sullivan. Wright said that form and function are one, which was really a more explicit statement of what Sullivan was saying, and it is a better one. I like it better because it’s emphasizing the integration of form and function. It’s emphasizing the organic approach to architecture. By organic, here, is meant a design that is integrated. For example, the human body is an integration of form and function. All of the various components of the body are there for a functional reason, and they result in a certain form. You have bones and musculature that create the arms and the hands and you’ve got the spine that supports the main trunk, and then there is the head that sits on top of it with its perceptual organs, the eyes and so on. All of these are central parts of being a human organism. That’s what “organic” and “form follows function” mean—to make sure that they are all working together.
Kaizen: Is it an absolute integration or are there ever elements in architecture that have no functionality?
Gillis: No, there shouldn’t be. There are lots of architects that do that, to this day. There are a great many architects who focus on form as more important to them, and they squeeze the function in somehow. Or, they focus on decorative effects, which is what your question asks. Are there simply decorative effects that you apply or put onto a building that have nothing to do with the function? The strict answer to that is no.
Certainly, there are lots of options in selecting true decorative effects in buildings, so you can have options. For instance, looking in this room at the windows with the draperies—those are not standard drapes. They are panels that flip in and out. There are a couple of other solutions I could have had, but then, in many ways, they wouldn’t be equally valid as decorative effects. These work with the windows that are there. You can see that they are the size of each panel of the window, and so they aren’t just some preconceived notion: “Well, we’re going to have some swag drapes here that are like what you see in some magazine.” They are designed to go with these particular window shapes.
Kaizen: New York is also one of the art and architectural centers of the world, with many competing styles and philosophies. What are the current leading trends?
Gillis: In the eighties and early nineties the trend was what was considered “postmodern,” but as a strict type and name, that has been supplanted by a “deconstructionist” style. There are examples in New York City and all over the world. The postmodern approach was simply a rebellion against modernism and the Mies van der Rohe–style of flat office buildings and stark, bland (in my view) buildings. It was a reaction to that, but the reaction was totally unfocused, because they simply said, “Well, we don’t want that line, so we will start doing more interesting shapes or colors or spaces.” But all that amounts to is looking back over styles, the old Classical Gothic, Renaissance, or Baroque, taking pieces of them, and pasting them on, saying, “Okay, we’re going to be making references to these old styles, so we are really ‘in the know.’ We are really cutting edge because we are not doing the standard, modern stuff. We’re doing ironic architecture,” as they often referred to it. Then they would say, “For those who are in the elite, knowledgeable group, they will recognize that our inclusion of this particular element—like a particular column—is referencing seventeenth-century architecture of some sort.” But, it was completely un-integrated; it was just things plastered on. That didn’t last very long because it was an incoherent, non-philosophical approach to design and architecture.
Then some of the worst elements of architectural theory arose against postmodernism and pushed forward this “deconstructionist” approach, which is to say that architecture should reflect the chaos of life, the insanity of life, the incoherent nature of the human condition. The result is that the leading proponents of that architecture, who have many of the great commissions today, are doing buildings that, very deliberately, look like they are going to fall down. They go through great effort to create structures which are unbalanced visually or that, formally, on the outside, have walls that are sloped in random ways, with no regularity to them. They are very deliberately anti-regular, anti-orderly, and anti-geometric. So what you experience is chaos—visual chaos.
Some people respond to that, of course. People who, in their own sense of life, feel chaos, will get a certain excitement and pleasure from that. On the other hand, I and a friend of mine were walking along a street in Cleveland a couple of years ago, when we turned a corner and came across one of these buildings that was deliberately disorderly, so that we couldn’t see the structure and the building’s façade was undulating in such a way that it looked like an earthquake was occurring. We both had a reaction of nausea, just a visceral reaction, not even an aesthetic reaction. in the sense that it was like: “Is this falling down, is something terrible happening here? We can’t make visual sense out of it. Are we dizzy? Are we spinning?” That’s the way those architects want to present the world—as something you can’t depend on. It could be melting; it could be falling down; it could be tilting. Unfortunately, that is a big trend.
Kaizen: Can you name some examples of deconstructionist architecture?
Gillis: Yes. The architect Frank Gehry is a proponent of that. He has only one building in New York, recently done, the IAC corporate building. He’s also famous for doing Disney Hall in California. A lot of his work is in California. He also did Bilbao, which is the Guggenheim Museum in Spain. The building in Cleveland was one of his buildings, on the campus on one of the universities. Another major proponent of that style is Daniel Libeskind, the guy who did the Jewish Museum in Germany and was hired to do the reconstruction of the World Trade Center. He’s an arch-exponent of this approach, which is totally, visually incoherent and an angrily anti-human approach. Interestingly, in relation to the World Trade Center site, he was hired by this whole coalition of government agencies and leading lights in the art world that love that kind of anti-art. But when he actually produced results, it was disliked in many ways. It had this tower that was very jagged—that is what he does, very jagged, angry looking shapes. The Jewish Museum in Germany is just awful in this regard. I have not been in it, but one must feel a horribleness about walking in it. Anyway, the tower for the World Trade Center was so bad that the other players in the process who had some control over it eventually brought in another architect and redid it and redid it and redid it. Now it looks nothing like the building that he originally did and he is really out of the picture. He’s been put aside even though he was the master planner.
Kaizen: Your architecture runs contrary to the postmodern and deconstructionist aesthetic. Has that made it more or less difficult for you to market yourself in New York? Are you not “in style”?
Gillis: I’m definitely not in style, and I’m sure it has had an impact. There are a lot of large developers who have probably not chosen me or pursued me in my work because their focus is on doing something that is safely avant-garde—not too avant-garde, but sort of cutting edge. They want the brand name of people who are currently en vogue in architectural magazines. I would prefer for it to be otherwise, but it is what it is. I do work that I like to do at whatever level that I can accomplish with clients who appreciate what I do. So I’m happy.
Kaizen: New York City is also one of the most intensely regulated building markets in the world. Does that add special challenges to your work?
Gillis: Yes, it adds frustrations, time, and money. The frustrations are something I have to shrug off, beat down, and overcome. The time and money mainly ends up costing the clients. However, the time problem can also waste efforts that could have been spent doing more interesting things. When I started out, New York was the most regulated market. It is still highly regulated, although some other parts of the country have been vying to become the most regulated. In a similar way, New York City was one of the few cities that had a Landmarks Law that actually controlled aesthetics by government, along with all of the standard building codes, which were very complex here as compared to other places. And New York City was always one of the most onerous zoning law places in the country.
But in the last couple of decades, other places, especially California and the West Coast generally, have tried to go even further by having similarly bad and controlled zoning laws, and they’ve added other things, such as growth controls. So it is not just a zoning limitation on what you can do with your property, which limits the value of your property; with growth controls, they’re saying, “You can’t do anything. You must stop: No growth—either for a certain number of years or indefinitely.” There have been all kinds of lawsuits and fights about that because, after all, it is a taking of property. But that has been worse in some other areas. New York, as far as I know, hasn’t had growth controls as such, where they simply have a moratorium on building—where you can’t do anything anymore.
So New York is falling back in its regulatory control to that extent. Currently, New York is trying to simplify its building code to match a standard building code around the country. That will probably make things a little easier, which is good. Zoning is a horribly complex thing. Zoning law in New York is similar to the Federal Tax Code. It is many, many volumes, very complex, very arcane, very much interpretational, so that it is sometimes difficult to know “as of right” what you are able to do just by following the book. So, yes, working in New York has been tough in that respect, but you learn what the rules are, and you find ways to work around those. There are certain ways that the controllers have not thought of controlling you, so you find spaces that you can work in that. By spaces, I mean spaces in the law where you can work around the limitations.
Kaizen: Has the zoning regulatory system impacted artistic freedom in architecture?
Gillis: It definitely has a strong impact. Most of my new building commissions, as opposed to reworking existing buildings, have been outside of New York City. There aren’t as many new commissions in New York City because it is so built up already. But when I’ve done them, the zoning is quite restrictive. The visual envelope with which you can work is very constrained by zoning.
Still, if you take that as a given—just as in all architectural problems—you have to look at your limitations and the limitations of the project as your friends. By limitations of the project, I mean the function the client wants: the clients wants a house of a certain kind, with so many bedrooms, a certain kind of kitchen; or they want an office building of a certain size, all on one floor, or multi-floor; or you are doing a hospital room, and it has to have enough rooms for patients and surgeries, and so forth. Those are all limitations on what you are doing, because they are the functions you are trying to accomplish. Then, within that, there’s also the limitation of the plot of land you are working with: what shape it is, what limitations are in the law on how high it can go, how far you can be from other properties around you. There are also the limitations of the environment, like what the direction of the sun is, whether there are other things that affect the light and air that your building might have. So all of these things constrain how you are going to approach your design solution. You have to look at those as the normal constraints of reality. It’s just like, if you want to walk down a set of steps, you can’t choose to just leap down twenty steps, you have to take them one, two, or three at a time. That’s the nature of humans and their ability to navigate things. So, in the same way, architecture has limitations. The legal limitations add on to that, and sometimes they are onerous. But, sometimes, if they aren’t too bad, they are simply a part of that package of limitations, and they are key to coming up with solutions.
Some architects in school, or professors in school, will say, “Okay, there’s no limits on what you can do in this thing, you can draw anything you want. The property is unlimited. There is no one telling you what to do.” Well, there is no solution to that problem, because there is no problem. There is no set of conditions that you are solving, so it is absurd to be talking about these kinds of things. You have to look at the limiting conditions, whatever kind they are, as long as they aren’t outrageous. If they are outrageous, then you say, “I can’t do this. It’s not sensible, It’s not possible to accomplish A, B, and C.”
Kaizen: How do you handle aesthetic criticism from politicians and regulators when a project is on the line?
Gillis: The place where that is a central problem is when you’re doing a building that is in a landmark district. New York and other places around the country have established landmark or historic preservation commissions that are trying to legislate aesthetics. The ideal varies: I’ll do the design I want and usually I will have talked to somebody at these commissions in advance so I know what they will be concerned about, what they will be focused on. And, if they are things that are impossible to me, I just won’t do the work. It doesn’t go forward.
For example, the building we’re sitting in, this house, is in a landmark district—and although it is a brand new building, and was built on an empty lot, the landmarks commission had control over what could be built. So I talked with them and they made clear, fortunately in this case, that their current modus operandi, their current philosophy, was that they didn’t want mimicry of the adjacent, historic buildings when a new building was being done. They weren’t looking for what they call the “Disney Effect”— simply making something that was a fake, nineteenth-century building. They had this vague idea that they wanted something modern, but something that was in keeping with what was around already. It was this subjectivist approach that was totally un-codified. You never can know exactly what they are going to go for, what they will accept. But, at least they weren’t saying, “You’ve got to literally match the forms and details of these old buildings around here.” That is why I was willing to proceed and to work on doing a new house for myself in this place, on this location, since the property was available for me to buy. I did a building that I wanted, and it looked the way I wanted it to, with all modern details. But in its final form, it used a brick that was similar to the brick that was commonly used in the area. So it was perfectly modern, my kind of building, but it had a certain material relationship to some of the other buildings around here.
Fortunately, in this case, the landmarks commission had a political agenda of wanting to promote the idea of new buildings, “in-fills” as they called it, into the existing fabric of the historic district to make people realize the value of living in the city and being an urban place. All of this was a political agenda. They looked upon my project as a great political asset. So they didn’t give me much grief, although it was complete happenstance because I didn’t know all this at the time. I knew lots of other projects—for example, one before mine, where a developer was building a house for himself in the historic district. They ran him around for a year-and-a-half, with multiple designs and multiple architects, but they kept rejecting everything. They kept saying, “Okay, you can do a modern building,” but because it was such a high-profile location and perhaps because it involved a nasty developer, they really put him through the ringer. It wasn’t really an in-fill; it was at the end of a block, so it was a very special location. They just had this whole different philosophical, political take on it.
But in my own case, going back to dealing with these people and controls by politicians, the answer is that either you get lucky and they have their own agenda, so they won’t give you a lot of grief and they will give you what you want, or you just don’t go forward—you just don’t do it, because it isn’t going to work out. In my case, with this building, when they saw the design for it, they basically accepted it. I was in this big hearing room in a formal hearing, with all of the commissioners around, and the public was there. I made the presentation, they gave their commentary: “Oh, yeah, we basically like it. It is a good approach, a good solution.” Then, several of the commissioners started to nit-pick. They started to say things like, “Oh, well, I would like the details on the top of the building to be a little smaller, and maybe the door to the entrance needs to be massaged and changed in some way,” and so on. They concluded by saying, “We’re not finally approving your project, but we want you to get back with the landmark commission staff and massage these details, and we’ll make recommendations to you to make them better.” I stood up and said, “Well, I’m not coming back. As far as I can see, you basically agree that this is a suitable approach, and I’m not going to get involved in a process of nit-picking the overall design.” I was able to do that because my wife and I had gotten the property contingently; we didn’t actually own it yet. We could walk away from the deal, and I was, fortunately, therefore in a position of telling the landmarks commission that I was out of there if they didn’t go along with this.
Interestingly, what happened was that the head of the commission then said, “Oh, well, we really didn’t mean to say that we are trying to control what you’re doing and that we want to change anything basic or fundamental, but we just have a few small concerns. We’re sure that if you just have one meeting with the staff and talk about the couple of things that we’ve talked about here, everything will be fine.” So they completely backed down and that was great. When I did have my little meeting the next day with the staff, they were very unsure of their position. One of the issues was the top of the building, the details of how the building ended. It was about two feet high, so I simply made it a one-half inch smaller, which makes no difference perceptually, and they were pleased. This gave them the ability to say that something happened.
Kaizen: You now have built up a flourishing architectural practice in New York. Looking back over the years, what has been your biggest entrepreneurial challenge?
Gillis: Well, it’s basically managing the uncertainties of an architectural practice—the ups and downs, the backlog of work—or the non-back log of work. You have to have, on the business side, enough flexibility so that you are not locked into huge overhead and expenses that go on for years and years, because all of a sudden, due to recession or real-estate troubles, you might have half the work that you had two years earlier. Therefore, you are not using all of your space; you have to cut down on staff, equipment, and so on. You need to manage the practice so you have enough flexibility to get out of commitments. That way you’re not stuck with huge money-costs that you can’t get out of for a long time. I’ve seen plenty of architectural firms that grew quickly, went from having twenty people to two hundred people working for them, then some local crash would occur, or their particular segment of the market suddenly slowed down, and they lost seventy-five percent of their work. You would go to their offices and there would be vast drafting rooms that were dark and empty, and they were paying tens of thousands of dollars a month for empty space. Then they go bankrupt. I’ve managed to avoid that by keeping it flexible.
Kaizen: What is your favorite past project?
Gillis: I would have to answer in this form—there are several categories to my projects in the scope of my business practice. There were the ones that were built on virgin sites, with open controls, open with respect to how I accomplish it and what it looks like. Then there were lots of other projects where I would take an existing building, maybe not doing a lot to the exterior but changing the spaces inside. There were projects where there were a lot of technical aspects and not as much design. Looking at those broad categories, certainly the first category, the purely new commissions with a blank slate—I would say that whichever of those projects was the last one is my most interesting. That category is the most satisfying overall because it is the most integrated of the work I do. I can’t look back and say the one I did ten years ago, or eleven years ago, or eighteen years ago is more fascinating or more wonderful than the one I’m completing now. I’ve found them all highly enjoyable and pleasurable and satisfying.
Kaizen: What is next for John Gillis, Architect? What are you working on now—if you can tell us without violating confidences?
Gillis: I’m doing a wide variety of projects—the way I like it to be. I’ve got a new house project in upstate New York, which I’m excited about, for a couple who are looking for the kind of work I do. I’m doing a complete renovation of a classic, nineteenth-century Brooklyn brownstone for a client where we are opening up the space. A lot of these old houses have very constrained, Victorian spatial relationships and tight rooms and lots of ornamental details that are heavy and sometimes not aesthetically pleasing. So this client wants to be in a lovely old building like that. Her building is really nice on the outside, but she wants to open it up on the inside. So we are massively changing, structurally, the inside and making it much more open and bright for her and her children. I’m also doing a small apartment building in Brooklyn, which probably will end up being a group of condominiums. It is on a unique site and the client wants something that is special, that it isn’t standard, cookie-cutter work. I’m also doing some new medical offices for a couple of doctors in Manhattan, which is always a special challenge: getting the work-flow right for the doctors and how they see and treat patients, managing the flow of the administration, and so on. I’ve got a client who has an existing house on a big piece of land upstate. We’ll be adding on a large chunk to the house. They are really excited about making it more like the kind of building I do. The house itself is an interesting house. So that will be a challenge. As well, I’m doing some custom apartments in New York City for clients from Israel who want to have some comfortable, special places to live when they come to New York.
Kaizen: In closing, what is the most important piece of advice that you would give to those just starting out in creative fields such as architecture?
Gillis: What I would say is make sure that you find the kind of work that excites you. Look around. Take the time, even if something doesn’t hit you right away, it will come. The kinds of things that start your heart beating faster, your pulse racing, are what you have to pay attention to. Just listen to yourself and say, “Okay, this is it.” This is the kind of thing that, in the long term, will excite you. If it does, pursue it. Make sure that in all respects, even in the parts you may not love, that they are part and parcel of what you want to focus on in your life. When you find that passion, that will make all of the other things seem insignificant.
This interview of John Gillis was conducted for Kaizen by Virginia Murr and Stephen Hicks. To see more of John Gillis’s architecture, please visit his website at www.architetto.com.
© 2007 and 2013 by Stephen R.C. Hicks. All rights reserved.