Alexander Gorlin reaches across stylistic divides to bring sumptuous modernism to urban dwellings.
Alexander Gorlin, FAIA, is a multifaceted architect with a range that has taken him from classical country villas to modernist urban houses, from affordable housing to luxury high-rises and on to offices, schools, synagogues—even to whimsical guard booths and a grand piano or two. His client mix is equally eclectic. In 2004 Gorlin designed Daniel and Nina Libeskind’s 2,200-square-foot TriBeCa loft in New York City, five blocks from where the Twin Towers once stood. A year earlier, a commission from New Urbanists Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co. resulted in the 12-story Gorlin Tower at Aqua in Miami Beach, Fla. And the nonprofit developers of the Nehemiah Spring Creek Houses at Gateway Estates in Brooklyn, N.Y., recently broke ground on 117 row houses that Gorlin designed. The brightly colored homes will be modestly priced from $158,300 to $480,000.
“I’m easily bored,” Gorlin says by way of explanation. “I think one’s practice should reflect the mix of society at large. To limit yourself in what you do is unnecessary, and in a way, I think your work can become less interesting.”
It’s a statement architects often make, but in Gorlin’s case, it seems rooted in a generosity of spirit that transcends mere ambition. Born in Queens, N.Y., and educated at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art and at Yale University, Gorlin is polite, friendly, and unassuming, with an open-minded optimism that makes him extremely likable. His SoHo office is a large, utilitarian room filled with 15 employees, cardboard models, and walls of books used to research ideas for the work at hand. Gorlin is a rigorous student of history—his Cooper thesis reconstructed the Jerusalem Temple from biblical texts and placed it in New York City’s Union Square, on axis with the subway lines along Broadway—yet his work has good-naturedly resisted typecasting. For him, history is just a means to an end. “You can’t compete with Michelangelo,” he says. “The most meaningful way an architect can connect with history is to make it somehow his own.”
That’s why Gorlin deliberately courts clients who are enthusiastic about making something unusual, like the urbane Chicago bachelor for whom he designed a theatrical townhouse. As is his custom, Gorlin dreamed up a narrative for the house, designing an all-white, glowing cube as the ultimate James Bond pad. “It’s like a dating service,” he says of the architect-client match. “Clients should themselves be creative, and it’s better if they’re fun to work with and have a sense of humor.” Listening to him talk, he seems buoyed not just by a desire to stand out, but by an urge to design buildings that are genuinely joyful.
As free-ranging as his work is, Gorlin is the go-to guy for urban dwellings. Townhouses, in particular, have been a focus of his considerable energies in recent years, resulting in two books: The New American Town House (Rizzoli, 1999) and Creating the New American Town House (Rizzoli, 2005). Gorlin became interested in this narrow, vertical house type through his work at Seaside, Fla., in the early 1990s, where he designed a cluster of townhouses facing Ruskin Place, the town’s central square. Ever the scholar, he began mining history for inspiration. How had city houses, with their blinkerlike parallel walls, evolved to overcome the challenges of lighting, construction, and circulation? What, he wondered, does it mean to do something modern with a house type that has been around for thousands of years? Or, in the case at Seaside, within the constraints of a TND?
Gorlin’s research showed that the noteworthy architecture emerging in the early part of the last century was not a rejection of tradition but an abstraction of classical ideas, such as the Roman peristyle garden reinterpreted as a double-height, light-filled atrium. Those ancient courtyard gardens were, he wrote in The New American Town House, “the ultimate focus of the house, completing the metaphorical transition from the city to the countryside in an architecturally rich setting of modulated light and shadow.”
Moving forward in time, 17th- and 18th-century Parisian townhouses also caught his eye. Although their façades were typically one undivided volume that respected the street, in plan all hell broke loose. They had a relaxed lightness that came from playful asymmetries—ideas, he says, that Le Corbusier expanded on in the 1920s, when the introduction of steel and reinforced concrete offered up new ways to configure space. “As opposed to the limitations of pattern-book places like Disney’s Celebration” in central Florida, Gorlin concluded, “the lessons of the development of Paris, London, and New York demonstrate that urban codes and rules have absorbed and encouraged innovation in the creation of the city.”
What Gorlin finally decided was that a row house’s style is less important than whether it speaks the street language. And that’s what he set out to prove in 1994 with his own modernist Seaside townhouse—the last one he designed on Ruskin Place, and a deliberate departure from the classically inspired houses he had done across the square. Planning codes dictated that the footprint maintain the street wall as one volume. Gorlin conceived his corner unit as a solid block, but one that could be carved away and animated with lively forms, light, and shadow. He anchored the outer corner with a bright red exposed-steel frame but recessed one of the glass walls beneath the roofline—a move that created a portico for the entrance stair leading to the second-floor public areas. “What was important to me about the [study of the] townhouse was that it enabled me to understand that New Urbanism wasn’t limited in style to traditional,” Gorlin says. “It could be modern in style, and yet traditionally urban to the street wall.”
His whirling staircase, visible through the façade’s two-story glass curtain walls, gives a hint of the drama that unfolds once inside. Creating a distinct sense of arrival is tricky on these long, narrow houses, but he managed to make his entire house—dubbed Stairway to Heaven—a promenade. Halls and stairs move up through the house, crossing from one side to another, and come up for air on the roof deck, where they corkscrew up to a nautical-inspired crow’s nest. “Every step is a threshold to another condition of circulation,” creating movement through light and space, he explains.
“In each project,” he continues, “there’s a theme that becomes the touchstone and animating idea that everything, in a way, has to relate back to. At Stairway to Heaven, it’s all about the path to the view of the sea. It’s all about the circulation and winding up to this widow’s walk, where you can see the Gulf of Mexico.”
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.