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Architecture of Our Time

New York City-based Steven W. Semes, Architect, brings a unique set of influences and an academic eye to its growing portfolio of recent projects.
By Will Holloway

On a cul-de-sac in the eastern Long Island town of Water Mill, NY, two 6,000-sq.ft. spec homes, designed in the Colonial Revival and Shingle styles typical of the nearby Hamptons, are nearing completion along the waterfront. Approximately 10 miles to the east, in Amagansett, a 7,500-sq.ft. stucco residence inspired by French country houses of the 18th century was recently completed. The proposed design of a 7,500-sq.ft. residence in Weston, CT, reflects the Federal style of the late 1700s. All four – showcasing a variety of traditional styles – were designed by an architect doubtlessly familiar to readers of both Period Homes and Traditional Building.

Over the years, the incisive commentary of longtime contributor Steven W. Semes – from "The Marvelous Subtleties of Classical Design" (Traditional Building, October 1997) to "The Choreography of Everyday Life: The Program of the New Period Home" (Period Homes, September 2000) to a recent review of Paul Spencer Byard's The Architecture of Additions (Traditional Building, August 2005) – has helped to both define and perpetuate the resurgence of the Classical tradition in contemporary architecture. What readers may not know is the extent to which his designs have begun to do the same.

Foundations
Semes' interest in traditional architecture can be traced to his youth in the southern Florida community of Coral Gables, which had been developed as a "traditional new town" in the 1920s. It was there, in the 1950s and '60s, that he was exposed to such Mediterranean Revival landmarks as Vizcaya (1916), the Coral Gables City Hall (1927) and the Venetian Pool (1924), where a young Semes took swimming lessons. His father and grandfather were both homebuilders, encouraging his interest in architecture and building from an early age. The Semes' family vacation home, in the mountains of North Carolina, was built to plans he drew at the age of 14.

A few years later, Semes headed off to the University of Virginia. "I was there in the days before Jaquelin Robertson, who changed the program around," says Semes, sitting in his office near New York City's Union Square. "I'd have to say I got an excellent Bauhaus education, and that's not something to sneeze at – in terms of skill level, it was a very good training. What was strange about it was the complete disconnect between what the architecture faculty taught in studio and all the Classical buildings that were standing around us, which were never discussed."

It wasn't until years later, upon meeting Robert A.M. Stern, Henry Hope Reed and Alvin Holm, that Semes would begin to see traditional architecture as a viable alternative. "When I was at UVa, in the '70s," he says, "the structures being built on the grounds were traditional in the sense that they were red brick and had white trim. I was actually one of the students who was up in arms about these things, thinking that the university shouldn't be building these little Colonial buildings, but that it should be hiring architecture faculty to set the world on fire."

After receiving his BS in architecture in 1975, Semes took a position with the National Park Service Historic Preservation Projects Branch, traveling around the country gaining hands-on experience with historic buildings. He also happened to be in the office when the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation were being written. Since then, many preservation officials have interpreted the Standards as encouraging or requiring that additions to historic buildings and districts be distinguishable from the historic construction and represent "the architecture of our time." But Semes notes that this was not necessarily the intent of the writers. "In those days, it never occurred to anyone that a learned and informed historical style could be done again," he says. "What we saw were the sort of colonializing buildings that you would associate with drive-in banks with little mansard roofs and little aluminum columns – and that's what we were against. But it didn't occur to anyone that someone with sufficient scholarship could actually design a building in the Classical language."

Realizing his passion for old buildings, Semes planned on pursuing a career in preservation. "I was all prepared to do that when I heard Bob Stern speak in Washington in 1977," he says. "What he revealed was that you could make new buildings with some of the same qualities we admire in old buildings. It was the beginning of a renewed interest in historic architecture, making it clear that this was a new possibility, so I went off to Columbia to see what he could teach me.

"At that time Columbia was a very interesting place – it was the late'70s, early '80s, so there was a huge amount of debate and openness about different kinds of architecture. You had Ken Frampton arguing for the Orthodox Modernist tradition, and you had Stern arguing for American vernacular architecture, so it was a very lively debate – but it was done with a great deal of respect because most of these people genuinely liked each other. It was the perfect place to be in school because you actually got the feeling that there were ideas, and that you could choose, so it was a very invigorating environment."

When Semes met Reed in 1981, he encouraged him to take a drawing class at Classical America taught by Alvin Holm. "It was the only place in the country at the time where you could learn to draw the orders," he says. "That's what really turned me around – between Henry and Al, they were the ones who helped me to see that my interests were appropriate and applicable."

Semes' early professional experience included five years with Johnson/Burgee Architects, of New York, NY, and four years with David S. Gast and Associates, of San Francisco, CA. Upon returning to New York City in 1993, Semes took a position with Cooper, Robertson & Partners, working closely with Jaquelin T. Robertson. "This was another mentorship for me," says Semes. "I spent six years working for him on very large private houses, exploring period detail in a way that was informed but not necessarily correct in the sense of trying to replicate something – but really trying to speak the language anew, which is something that I've always been interested in."

In Practice
After spending nearly 20 years designing to the tastes of others, Semes opened his own practice, in East Hampton, NY, in 1999. Given the range of his influences, both academic and professional, Semes was eager to see how his own designs would develop. "I'd become very good at working for other people, and learning how to do what they wanted me to do," he says. "So I was a little bit puzzled at first – 'What am I going to do when I don't have to please my boss?' It's been a process of discovery to find my own way of doing things, but it seems to have come along fairly quickly.

"Even when I was working for other people, I was still being me, but I was also learning how to be them at the same time, and if the 'them' that we're talking about is someone who's good and that you can learn from, then being them for a little while is a great way to learn. If you're absorbing the wisdom of the master, then that's good, but at some point you need to stop absorbing and start figuring out how you'd do things on your own."

In 2001, Semes returned to New York City and, in 2003, joined forces with current associate Ann Barton. Today, Steven W. Semes, Architect (SWSA), operates out of offices in New York and South Bend, IN, where Semes also teaches at the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture.

Although they come from different backgrounds – Barton studied design at New York's Cooper Union, an education she describes as "Modernism bordering on poetry," before working with Ferguson & Shamamian Architects, of New York, NY, for almost 10 years – Semes and Barton have been well served by what they share in common: a strict attention to detail and a keen appreciation of the craft of building.

"I've always been very interested in how things are made," says Semes, "So there's a real interest in the craft, in putting things together in a way that seems satisfying. I'm interested in trying to compose the elements in a way that speaks one language at a time – not to say that things can't be eclectic, but a building should speak with one voice."

"It's something we're both interested in – the craft of making a building," says Barton. "The actual way pieces go together, learning from the craftspeople who make them, the integrity of the materials – it's most important to us that the details are right. I don't want to try to make a column do something a column is not supposed to do. I'm really interested in elements doing their fundamental job, because you're at ease when you look at something and understand how it works."

"I think the best architecture always grows out of a sense of how to do something properly," adds Semes. "Certainly Classical architecture emerged over many years of trying to figure out how to put a beam on top of a post, and how to do it beautifully and with different materials."

Built Works
"One of the exciting things we're doing now," says Semes, "is working directly with builder/developers on projects where a builder has four or six lots together. It's an opportunity not to just build four or six spec houses and walk away, but actually to create a kind of community – the configuration of the lots is such that you can actually develop them as a collection of houses that go together, so that when you drive down the street, you have the sense of a place, not just six houses."

The houses nearing completion in Water Mill, for example, are two of the four that will eventually be built on a row of adjacent lots. Because all four will be visible when driving down the street, SWSA concentrated on creating a uniform street frontage of privet hedges, street trees and driveways marked by gate posts and lanterns reflecting each house's style.

The first is a five-bedroom Colonial Revival such as, Semes points out, might have been built in the 1920s. It features a center-hall plan, a colonnaded veranda overlooking the water, an outside fireplace and a pool house in the manner of a rustic Greek temple. Next door, the second house is a five-bedroom Arts and Crafts Shingle-style design such as might have been built in East Hampton in the 1890s. On the waterside, it features a long recessed porch and cut-in balconies above. Lots three and four are still in the design phase – three is a symmetrical and orderly design with a more Victorian proportion; four is Semes' homage to the early Stanford White houses, which combined elements of Colonial Revival and Shingle styles, often with pinwheel layouts. "One thing about doing these individually designed houses as a group is that you have to really pay attention to where public and private zones of the house are," says Barton. "In each house, even though they have similar materials and are similarly built, we were very careful to make sure each experience feels like a private, separate world."

All four designs also exhibit a central theme of SWSA's design philosophy: fitting the character of a place. "This is something we think is very important," says Semes, "especially in a place like the Hamptons, where the pressures are to create these very lavish fantasies of luxury. We ask, 'What is the character of the place? What are the kinds of houses that belong there historically?' The Colonial Revival, the Arts and Crafts, the combination Colonial Revival and Arts and Crafts like Stanford White was doing – that's what we're doing with this set of four houses."

The recently completed French Country-inspired house in Amagansett began as a fix-it project. "The clients had a sort of plan-service house, one of the typical spec-house plans with a lot of 45-deg. angles," says Semes. "They wanted an 18th-century French Classic-style house because they had a lot of antique furniture. What they had was something like you'd expect to see in Boca Raton – a French provincial house with all kinds of zooty turrets and things, so we tried to calm it down and turn it into something more like an actual 18th-century French house."

Based on traditional French pavilions, the house is laid out in a formal H-plan. The wings – one including the master bedroom suite and library, the other the kitchen, dining room and family room – flank a double-height living room divided from the entry hall in the front and a winter garden in the back by screens of Doric columns. In the entry hall, dormers let in light, so the double-height space gets light from above and below. Other features include antique marble mantels and stair railings fabricated by a craftsman from Argentina.

"Without talking to me," says Semes, "the owners did something that nobody's ever done before in my career – they put my name on the building, in bronze letters, right by the front door. It's nice to have clients who are champions of what you're trying to do."

For an apartment in a building on Manhattan's Upper East Side that Semes describes as "pure Mies van der Rohe" – 8-ft. ceilings, strip windows and a concrete structure, SWSA designed a renovation to more harmoniously accommodate the client's collection of antique English furniture. "They wanted to remodel the apartment in such a way that the furniture wouldn't feel out of place," says Semes, "but you wouldn't feel like you were fighting the building either. So we tried to create a kind of edited traditional interior that wouldn't fight against the ceilings and the ribbon windows, but still would have enough of a traditional feeling of rooms and moldings that the furniture wouldn't feel like it was in some sort of a showroom."

By using elements like bookcases and decorative beams on the ceiling, rhythm, proportion and detail were instilled. A three-room enfilade – living, dining and family – was created, with sliding doors that pocket to allow an unobstructed view through all three or close to create individual rooms. "We tried to make the plan work like a pre-war apartment," says Semes, "because we were, in fact, adding two apartments together, end to end. This is a hard thing to do, because you end up with a sort of train of rooms, so we tried to break it up and make corridors that wouldn't feel endless."

Aside from residential designs, SWSA has also collaborated on a number of public projects, including the Chapel of St. John the Evangelist, in Milwaukee, WI. Working with Holm, Semes consulted on the interior details, ornament and finishes, and designed the sanctuary furnishings, including the altar, reredos and lectern.

For the newly contructed North Jersey Ambulatory Surgery Center in Hackensack, NJ, SWSA served as a design consultant for the Classical brick and cast-stone exterior detail. "They were having trouble getting a Classical look," says Semes. "It was really a matter of cosmetics – they had already decided to make the base in cast-stone, the upper part in Flemish-bond brick and to have cast-stone pilasters and cornices and pediments, so it was a matter of helping them get the proportions and the profiles right. We created full-size profiles of the entablatures, full-size details of all of the cast-stone base, the arcades, the balustrades – all of the different elements. This kind of team approach is something we'd like to do more of – helping people get it right."

Continuing Tradition

In his capacity as a fellow and faculty member of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America, Semes has taught traditional design for several years and lectured extensively on Classical interior design, an extension of the book he authored on the subject, The Architecture of the Classical Interior (W. W. Norton & Co., 2004). In 2005, he was named the Francis and Kathleen Rooney Chair in Architecture at the University of Notre Dame, where his current research focuses on preservation issues and new architecture in historic contexts; it will be published as the forthcoming The Future of the Past: A Conservative Ethic for Architecture, Urbanism and Historic Preservation.

"This project is an outgrowth of 'Paradigm Shift: The New Classicism and Historic Preservation' [Traditional Building, February 1999], where I first suggested the idea that historic preservation needs to take seriously the possibility, and now the reality, of new traditional architecture in contemporary practice," says Semes. "Because historic preservationists, at least in the professional ranks, have tended to be people who were trained in Modernism and saw historic preservation as a professional path, but whose particular interest in architecture tended to be Modernist.

"One of the consequences of that has been that people have tended to interpret the Secretary of the Interior's Standards, for example, as, if not mandating, then certainly encouraging, modern buildings as additions to landmarks and districts. Modernist architecture has also changed over the last 25 years; whereas it might have been somewhat quiet and elegant 25 years ago, it's become much more aggressive in the last decade or so. So the idea of having very aggressive and contrasting buildings in historic settings has begun to become a problem – a problem that's now beginning to be recognized by the public. But the leaders of the preservation community have been reluctant to relinquish the principle that we can't get in the way of the 'architecture of our time.' The way that I, and some of my colleagues, respond to that is to say, 'Well, we are making the architecture of our time, and we'd appreciate it very much if you'd recognize that.'"  

 

 

 
 

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