Architecture

The Art Handler: SOM’s Roger Duffy, With the Help of His Artist Friends, Thinks Outside the Old Glass Box

roger duffy The Art Handler: SOMs Roger Duffy, With the Help of His Artist Friends, Thinks Outside the Old Glass Box

Mr. Duffy outside the future home of a Dia art center on West 22nd Street. (Matt Chaban)

When he was 11, Roger Duffy had his first encounter with art. It was 1966 and he was thumbing through one of those big Time-Life picture books about America at his home in Oakmont, a town on the outskirts of Pittsburgh famous for its golf course of the same name. He came across a picture of a drawing by Diego Rivera hanging in the guest room at Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright’s wooded retreat 60 miles away. Mr. Duffy asked his father what it was, and Duffy père responded laconically, “It’s art.”

Even today, as one of the most canny combiners of art and architecture, Mr. Duffy, in his reserved way, said he saw no great significance in this awakening. He had come to realize the power of a piece of art, as well as that of its surroundings, even though he did not know it at the time. “I thought of art as magic, and I still do,” he said. “But the two of them together, in that moment, I never really thought of that, now that you mention it. I was just focused on the picture in the picture.”

It would take a few decades for his appreciation of art to develop, and years more for him to incorporate it into his work as a partner at Skidmore Owings & Merrill, but his focus never really wavered. “He may not have known it, but I think this sensitive genius was always there inside him, just waiting to come out,” said Robert Whitman, the renowned multimedia artist and friend and collaborator of Mr. Duffy.

Were it not for Mr. Duffy, there is almost no chance Skidmore, Owings & Merrill would find itself in Chelsea, stitching together a row of old industrial buildings on West 22nd Street into the new Manhattan outpost of the Dia Art Foundation. Easily the most famous skyscraper architects in the world (Lever House, Sears Tower, Burj Khalifa), SOM is not exactly known for its quixotic art projects. But with Mr. Duffy, who has spent the past three decades befriending and subsequently employing nearly every artist to have ever shown at Dia, it is impossible to imagine anyone else undertaking this project.

Slideshow: A Dozen Duffy Designs >>

Mr. Duffy stands out in a firm of more than 1,000 architects, despite his quiet demeanor and monkish aspect. He is just as comfortable talking about phenomenology as he is zoning envelopes and interior finishes, and it is an experiential bent that he labors to incorporate into his work. “He is incredibly zen,” said Dia director Phillipe Vergne. He has an impressive recall of the art shows he has seen, particularly those at Dia, every single one of which he seems to remember.

The first date he and his wife of 23 years ever went on was the 1989 Robert Ryman show at the foundation’s old space at 548 West 22nd Street, which was sold off last decade amid Dia’s money troubles. It is a building Mr. Duffy speaks about with the same reverence most architects save for LeCorbusier’s Ronchamp or Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building.

Akin to the artists he admires, Mr. Duffy has rejected the formalism of his peers and forebearers, an unusual move for someone who works at a firm where the vernacular, varied and considerable as it may be, is still clean glass boxes.

Instead, he invests himself in the mission of his clients, the sites they have selected and, as he puts it, “their aspirations.” He has also developed an unusual way of looking at his projects, in part by using others to help him look at them. “I think these artists in particular spend a lot of time thinking about perception, be it visual perception or aural perception or other things, and they were delving into the fact that most of our thinking is done by the unconscious side of our brains,” he said. “They can bring something to the work that no one else can.”

David Childs, SOM’s long-time director, said he has rarely seen such a commitment to collaboration.

“A lot of architects draw a line around what they do, and maybe everyone else can hang some art on the wall, or a light fixture,” Mr. Childs said. “Roger has always been interested in bringing in groups of people with different perspectives than he has, different ways of thinking, and really letting them help drive the design process.”

exterior view no cars The Art Handler: SOMs Roger Duffy, With the Help of His Artist Friends, Thinks Outside the Old Glass Box

An early conceptual design for the future Dia, joining two existing buildings with a new one in between. (Dia)

Growing up in Oakmont, Mr. Duffy said his was an intelligent home, if not an intellectual one—Time-Life territory. His father sold vinyl siding “in the coal towns of Western P.A.,” though he eventually became mayor and a state assemblyman. His mother was a court minute clerk at the county courthouse, “the person who swears you in before you testify.”

His first real brush with architecture came during his senior year in high school, when he would go to retrieve his sister each weekend from Carnegie Mellon University, where she was in her freshman year. Two women across the hall would let Mr. Duffy wait in their room from time to time. “They were both architecture students, and they were always sketching, which looked like fun, so I figured why not,” he said of his decision to study the subject when he started at CMU the following year.

When he graduated in 1979, the country was in recession, but Pittsburgh was especially bad off following the collapse of the steel industry. “There was absolutely no work, so I headed toward the nearest town, which was Washington,” Mr. Duffy said. He had read about SOM’s work and was impressed enough that it was the only place he applied. After a week of showing up at Mr. Childs’ door, Mr. Duffy’s eventual mentor relented and found him a job as a junior designer. He recalls being struck by Mr. Duffy’s desire to train first in the technical department.

When Mr. Childs moved to New York in 1985 to run the firm, he brought Mr. Duffy and a handful of other architects with him. It was there that Mr. Duffy had his artistic epiphany, on that date with his wife. Until then, he had not given art much thought, but he remembers being dumbstruck by
Ryman’s work, as well as the little things, like Dan Flavin’s transformation of the stairwell with a fluorescent light piece from 1966. “It was so special, and really made me realize the potential of space,” he said. “I wanted to do something like that with my work.”

It wasn’t until he was named a partner, in 1997, that he began to experiment with incorporating artists into his creative process. “I had a responsibility to do something special,” he said. “And why the hell not?”

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Mr. Duffy’s Greenwich Academy, designed with James Turrell. (SOM)

In seeking to expand his palette beyond the typical boundaries of architecture, Mr. Duffy has often collaborated with the minimalist artists he has gotten to know—even using commissions as an excuse to get closer to his idols. His first realized project as a principal was a lobby renovation at 350 Madison Avenue, completed in 2002. He tried to convince the late artist Fred Sandback, who drew in space using lengths of colored yarn, to work with him. Ultimately, Sandback, who died in 2003, turned the project down.

Not all artists feared being involved in commercial work, but not all of Mr. Duffy’s projects were so commercial, either. Next came a long-running partnership with James Turrell, famous for his sky-spaces, on a trio of private schools. The first, only now being built, was in Kuwait. Then came a new upper school for Greenwich Academy in Greenwich, Conn., completed in 2004. The pair created a long glass structure, with a greenroof on top, set into the hillside of the bucolic campus. Mr. Turrell crafted a dramatic entrance of prismatic lights.

Three years after that was an even more ambitious project: a new science building for the Deerfield Academy, in Deerfield, Mass. Mr. Duffy sought out astronomers, geologists and other scientists to join Mr. Turrell, the artist Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle and Dia’s former director Michael Govan in helping him conceive the design. What they came up with was a series of curving, curling brick walls. Inside, different installations track the movement of the sun and the strata of the earth beneath the school.

These days, Mr. Duffy is finishing a collaboration with conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner for an art and design-focused high school on East 57th Street that is set to open in the fall. Another one is being planned in Elizabeth, N.J., and he is working with a number of artists on a new building for the New School at the corner of 14th Street and Fifth Avenue.

“What good is just sticking a picture on the wall at the end?” Mr. Duffy said of his intense commitment to artistic collaboration.

He has designed his share of conventional projects, among them a cafeteria for Condé Nast (no, not that Condé cafeteria, but another at 750 Third Avenue for the Fairchild division), the Skyscraper Museum in a Battery Park City storefront and the Toren condo tower in Downtown Brooklyn. Still, all involve unusual collaborations, if not with artists. A fashion designer is helping with a new airport terminal in Mumbai.

It was through his work with the Dia artists that Mr. Duffy first got involved with the foundation. Michael Govan knew him from the shows he frequented, but it was after some difficulties in finishing the foundation’s building in Beacon, in 2003, that one of the artists suggested SOM, and specifically Mr. Duffy, could help. Another friendship was born.

Mr. Vergne recalled interviewing upwards of a hundred architects for the job, but in conversations, people kept telling him to seek out Mr. Duffy. “When I met Roger, he took me completely off guard,” Mr. Vergne said. “He gave me none of the answers I was used to from architects.”

The artists are equally excited. “In the words of a friend of mine, when they heard about Roger getting the job, they said, ‘Thank god they didn’t pick a starchitect,” Mr. Whitman said. “I call them ego-architects. All they do is get in the way. But not Roger. All he cares about is the art.”

Slideshow: A Dozen Duffy Designs >>

mchaban@observer.com | @MC_NYC

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