[What made you want to be an architect?
I don't know. Because I couldn't do anything else probably. I wasn't very good at anything. My mother was interested in architecture. She wanted a house by Frank Lloyd Wright when she was young, but my father didn't see it the same way, naturally, for obvious reasons, so we compromised by not having one.I majored in philosophy at Harvard, and I didn't know if I wanted to be a teacher or a theoretician or just what, but I was always interested in art and architecture to look at. I couldn't draw, so I knew I couldn't be an architect, you see.
So I suddenly realized -- in the middle of my political work -- I had missed my calling. So, at the age of 34, I decided to really be serious about architecture. Harvard didn't care whether I could draw or not, so I went to Harvard at 34 to study architecture.
I don't see how anybody can go into the nave of Chartres Cathedral and not burst into tears, because I thought that's what everybody would do.
I was a lousy kid. It was when architecture hit me that I became more sensible.
Architecture sometimes seems like politics or religion. It's full of movements and orthodoxies and heresies and controversy. You always seem to be right in the middle of it all.
I love that, you see. I didn't lose that just because I switched from philosophy to architecture. I'm still a thought kind of an architect more than a genius type. I'm not a genius. There are some, and I love them, but I like the give and take and the change and the prophesying what's happening and catching onto the next train by the caboose.
The military is the most important single profession in this country, except for architecture. If it weren't for the military, I couldn't do architecture. So I admire the military very much. That isn't too popular among Harvard intellectuals.
I was a stupid intellectual, you know. The type that wore glasses and went around reading.
Exams are so stupid. I couldn't be bothered to work for them, so I kept flunking them. They were too simple-minded. So I went to a cram school. The cram school said, of course, "You idiot, look at that piece of paper. You've only got six lines on it." I said, "Yeah, the paper's so beautiful, what do you want to spoil it for by covering it with lines," they said, "Look, you've got to pass the exam. Stop your damn theories and cover the sheet with extra trees. It doesn't make any difference, just fill it up. Put more bricks in or something." And another clue, "How do you know how to get into that building?" And I said, "It's right here." They said, "No, you take a red arrow. And it's the only red thing you've got on the sheet, so the examiner will see it" I said, "I see, so he'll know where to go in." Those simple little tricks I had trouble at.
They wanted a house in the suburbs. So I did it, just out of my memory.
To be an architect, you've got to know people. Like most professions. You have to know people in order to get the next job. As the richest and the greatest American architect said, "The first principle of architecture is, get the job." In other words, if you aren't personable enough or persuasive enough, you'll never get anywhere.
I had learned professors that I worshipped -- Russell Hitchcock, a great, great historian of architecture. I wanted to be an architectural historian, that was one of my passing fancies, but I wasn't any good, and this guy was great. And then he tried to build a building. Disaster! In other words, it takes something else besides intellectual prowess. Harvard will never help you become an architect.
It takes what they laughingly call genius, but there are only a couple of geniuses once in a while like an Einstein or a Frank Lloyd Wright. No one can aspire to that. That is either God-given or not. There is nothing you can do about it.
But all of my advice is straight to all kids, "Should I be an architect?" I say "No." Always say no, because if you can help it, don't. Go into something that'll make money, if that's what most Americans seem to want, me included. Just don't bother being an architect.
Le Corbusier I met. He was a nasty man, but obviously a genius. You don't have to like the people just because they're geniuses.
It's the most photographed house [The Glass House]. Bothers the hell out of me. I'm supposed to live there and then people come and look at you all the time. It's annoying.
I can't work if I'm alone.
Now that's another pleasure, to see it come up and watch other people's faces and have them appreciate it. But everybody wants that. That's called the desire for fame. Every movie star has that feeling of wanting to be accepted and be praised. That's a natural ambition in the world. A sense of conquest too. Very, very satisfying, but the trouble is, you mentioned a few very nice buildings, but what about the ninety percent of the other buildings? There's two sides to every one of these coins and I certainly won't talk about those. I only talk about the ones that did come out well.
Is there a difference between designing a house and designing a skyscraper?
It's more difficult. Because every decision you make makes such an enormous percentage difference in the looks. If you get a good plan on a skyscraper, you've got to get somebody's computer -- not mine -- and click it through and it reproduces all the plans all the way up to the hundredth floor. So you have a few basic decisions and then the battles begin.
The only goal is building a beautiful building, but if you don't know your functions, if the Seagram's building didn't work and make piles of money for everybody, it wouldn't be a success. All skyscrapers are money-making machines. So a function of the building, what would rent the best, is always on your mind. You can say, "Oh it's just commercialism," but that commercialism is our non-religion.
The care and feeding of clients is really one of the main obstacles, because you always have a client with some preconceived idea of what a house looks like, and all you want him to do is leave a check and go to Europe for a couple of years. Or leave two checks. But alas, life isn't simple. If it were, more people would be better architects.
I'm not the greatest influence at all, but I am nasty.
My worst mistake was going to Germany and liking Hitler too much.
I mean, how could you? It's just so unbelievably stupid and asinine and plain wrong, morally and every other way. I just don't know how I could have been carried away.
Where the hell was I?! A Harvard graduate! So much for Harvard! I was just stupid. Just unforgivable. That's the worst thing I ever did.
Do you have any thoughts about the role of the architect in society?
I think it's marginal. I don't think it should be marginal. I think it's very important. I think it can influence the world. It can make you a better person if you're surrounded by good architecture, but the world doesn't seem to listen too much to that. They still create cities like Tokyo or Istanbul. Horrible places.
What is architecture's role?
Inspiration, like music. History, like music and painting, used to be called ennobling, but we don't care much about ennoblement anymore. What is it? It makes you feel much better. To be in the presence of a great work of architecture is such a satisfaction that you can go hungry for days. To create a feeling such as mine in Chartres Cathedral when I was 13 is the aim of architecture.
How much is inspiration, how much perspiration?
About 99 percent is perspiration. Anybody can answer that.
Any doubts about your ability?
Oh goodness yes. I'm thoroughly discouraged right now. But that goes with the territory. You see better people around you all the time. Not to be envious and not to take that out in bitterness is a hard lesson, but you'd better, because you can't always be Frank Lloyd Wright. You've got to learn to live in this world just as you live in it. You've got to stand it.Later on, I became interested in architectural history and my passion in politics. Isaiah Berlin was, to me, the greatest theorist. It's books that really keep the mind filled. Another thing we should advise young people is to read. Read, read, read. If nothing catches your spirit, that's too bad. I must admit that the passion roused by a Plato can have no second. Not even poetry.
Detective novels to keep me from committing suicide. They're wonderful relaxation; much better than television. But I only like the American kind and I read all of them five or six times.
I knew about Mondrian because Mondrian, of course, had a very close connection with architecture. Some painters are more architectonic. The two great ones in recent history are Malevich and Mondrian. If you don't know those people and appreciate them, I don't know how you could be an architect.
My favorite painter for instance, is Caspar David Friedrich. He was a romantic painter. Single men on a dark sea may sound crappy, but I assure you it isn't. A ruined cathedral at sunset may be too appalling to think of, but he could do those pictures. Now you'd say, what's the message? I don't know what message, all I know is every time I go to a museum where there are Caspar David Friedrichs, I spend all my time there.
No writer has ever been able to explain painting. In fact I gave up reading books on painting. (...) So it's best not to talk about it at all. It's magical. That's why they used to say there are many paths to the truth besides reasoning and words and talking. There's mysticism. How do you explain mysticism? How do you find God on your knees in front of a statue. I don't know whether it was God I found at Chartres Cathedral or not. Nobody ever told me that. Those things are mysteries.
But painting is something I can't understand. I cannot paint. I cannot think in those terms at all. I've tried and tried, naturally, always tried. Just as many times I've tried to design a chair. This chair was designed by Mies van der Rohe. Well I can't design a chair. I did it a couple of times and they were not only uncomfortable, but very ugly.
Anybody who makes a prognostication's a damned fool. I've done it and I know it's always, always, always wrong, because you make an assumption that is based on your experience today. The greatest challenge in the next century in architecture? Just the continual anguish and reform and replanning and nobody, nobody knows what strange changes are going to take. The history of the past century, for instance. Nobody could have guessed what Le Corbusier would do, that what Frank Lloyd Wright did was to change the course of history, or Mies van der Rohe.
And now the kids! We have a wonderful generation coming, twisting it all out of what an older person would think was shape. But they're doing it with such panache, with such verve, which such delightful humor, that a whole new panoply of architecture's opened up. That's why, as far as my feeling goes, it's all going to be good.
That is one of the great things about being connected to an art as great as architecture. It's your desire -- Plato's words -- for immortality. That's what keeps you going, not sex.]