On a recent trip to New York, Modelo was able to meet with Stuart Narofsky, founder and principal of Narofsky Architecture. Stuart has been been an architect since 1983 and has received numerous accolades from the AIA including a recent Lifetime Achievement Award and his firm was selected as best of Houzz in 2012, 2013 and 2014. Stuart spent some time speaking with us about his outlook on design and how his approach has evolved over the course of his career. Full interview below
On his decision to become an architect
Actually it was fate or maybe some organic pullings. I grew up in New York City, in Queens, and I had no idea what an architect was. In high school, I took a drafting course and really liked it. I started college in engineering. I was doing very well. I was a superb draftsman by that time, I was always good at number crunching. And it was fine! But then I took an elective course in architecture, like an “Introduction to Architecture.” I really bonded with my teacher and when he heard I was in engineering he said, “You know, you’re wasting your time here. You should be in architecture school.” So I transferred to an architecture school that he suggested. And that was it! There was no great awakening other than my passion for drawing and finding something that was looser and more creative.
On starting his firm
In 1979 through the beginning of 1983, I worked for a small firm out of Long Island. It was a twelve person firm, and in the years I was there I really developed into handling my own residential projects for my boss. At that point, I was really autonomous in the office. I was one of two architects, and everyone else was either an administrator or an interior designer. Then, two things happened in the spring of 1983. One, my boss asked me to be a partner in the firm with incentives and he really felt like I was essential. The second thing was I got a call to do a freelance job. One of the business’s clients that I serviced through my firm recommended me, but not the firm, to a friend. So I had this mental struggle to decide what to do, but what I ultimately decided was, as nice as the partnership sounded with the money and everything, that I had this opportunity and it was time to take it. And I did. So Spring of 1983, working out of one of the bedrooms in my rental apartment, I started my firm.
On the transition from freelance to partnership
That was a bit of a culture shock. There were a bunch of pros and cons. Yeah I’d been my own firm for all those years and this firm from Manhattan who had lost its creative partner. It was a three partner firm, and the creative partner had died. And believe it or not, I was on a tour in Northern Italy and the two remaining partners needed a get-away from the turmoil they had been through having lost a partner were also on this tour. We all hooked up in Italy and through a lot of grappa and cappuccinos, we hit it off with each other. They looked me up and they thought that I could be central to maintaining and maybe even improving their designs because one of the partners was purely business-marketing and administrative, and the other partner was almost all marketing in the sense of going out and securing jobs. Neither of them were creative. It was interesting, we tried a few projects loosely together through 1997 and then in 1998 we bonded and sealed it and started the firm and that was IDT Associates.
It was a culture shock for me getting involved in something I had not been involved with and that was when, in my own firm, clients came to me because of the quality I brought to a project. In this firm a lot of the projects were there because they were available, they were the cheapest, or they would be good architects but not necessarily for our design ideas. So over the years we developed conflicts where we were taking on projects to keep afloat, which I was not happy with nor was I happy designing. That really was what led to a kind of erosion in my comfort level in the firm. At the same time at one point in about 2001, Jennifer my wife, who led a small interior design firm as partner, started leasing space from us. Because she was there, we started throwing her and her partners some interior commissions through our clients. Since Jennifer and I started living together, we now were working together and we really hit it off. There was definitely a spark there, it was really definitely philosophically we were aligned and she knew how unhappy I was becoming with the bigger firm and so in 2003 we made the decision to start a firm together.
On being an out-of-the-box thinker
In the 1980s until about 1994/95, I was really struggling with what were the things that were influencing me and why my projects were taking on the design approach or look or configuration composition that they were taking on. I was still bouncing back and forth about what was being published. I was bouncing back and forth with what I was reading. I reached a point where I felt all I was doing was taking things that were either popular or being published and I was applying them to my clients’ needs and projects and I was modifying them. But it didn’t feel organic, it didn’t feel natural. I started, believe it or not, becoming a ferocious reader, going back into the history books, going back into what I would call my “Hero’s Architecture.” So key architecture figures for me, thinking about what was on their mind, not what they designed, but what were they thinking. What were the roots of why they did what they did?
On his heroes and his process
Some of them were some of the basics you know, like Mies van der Rohe or Le Corbusier. Others were maybe not as known to the public; Rudolph Schindler. One really organic guy Emelio Ambasz. There were so many. Louis Kahn. At that point I was just researching ferociously. Neutra. So I had this renewed idea of how to approach a job. And that’s evolved to now basically every job that comes in, starts out absolutely raw. Trying to understand the clients’ particular program and need. To me, that’s math. I tried to understand the site regulations. That’s math. There’s the things I try to learn about the client, what they like. What they liked materially, what they’re comfortable with, things that attract them. I have them share idea books with me through Houzz and other sites so I can get an idea of the things that attract them. Then what I try to do is hone a whole new concept based on many factors, and it starts very micro. I literally start sketching on Post-It pads. I start sketching in my sketchbook, where I find I have no restraints. Quick sketch, nothing quite aligns, nothing’s quite dimensioned, and then that slowly evolves into sketching onto larger sketch paper. At this point, the methodology is so down-pat, our initial presentations to clients are 90% hand-produced. Not even drafted with a parallel edge or anything. They’re free-hand. Then what I do is I take those sketches, we scan them, we clean them up a little to make a presentation booklet or digital presentation, I give them to one of the talented people here, they build a quick SketchUp model to support it. It’s more of a compositional thing. It gives them a sense of the 3D quality of it where my sketches are giving them the feel of it. They can see why my pen moved where it moved because I want to move them into a space where I have them reside in that space.
The fact that I start so micro, it’s almost that I’m designing them furniture in space on a site and locating people in movement composed within this kind of virtual, 3D world. Then I start to build enclosures around it and decide where I want a solid and where I want it open, or if I need weather protection. And that’s what I’ve evolved to. And that’s why every project at this point is so unique. If you look at what we’ve recently completed and what we have on the boards now, there isn’t a single project that shares materials, layout, composition — they’re all unique to their place.
I have a real problem with green. I think the marketers have taken it over the top. It’s a good thing to be green right? Everybody wants green. Everybody wants to save the planet. Everybody wants to be healthy. And I really fell for it for a long time. I became a member of the U.S. Green Building Council, filed LEED projects… we don’t do that anymore. We don’t file LEED projects anymore. I got real tired of the bean counting, the number-punching, and all about reaching certain emblems, or what color medal. To me, what gets lost in a lot of architecture because of that, is design. So guess what I did. I went back again. I went back into the history books, before there was air conditioning, before there was electricity, how did people build dwellings to deal with their environment. What was natural to it? What did they do? To that effect, I’m heading down to Buenos Aires and I’m giving three lectures down there and this particular lecture is called “Becoming an Architect of Dwellings” and it focuses only on homes and it goes back to caves and moves forward. To me sustainability starts with the thinking itself. It starts with how you orient things, how you respect the land. Do you tread gingerly on the land? Do you float on it, barely touching it, respecting it? Or do you utilize it? Do you anchor into it but in as sensible of a way as you can? As the designs develop, we keep in mind and we make decisions as to how far we want to push and how far sometimes we don’t want to push.I will prioritize a living space that I’ve created that’s a wonderful, magic space for whatever reason because it’s a wonderful place to reside in, because of scale, because of the garden outside, whatever it is, I will prioritize that before I want to force some other sort of green harbinger onto it. Most people get into this green thing like it’s all about the energy, right? But it’s not. A lot of it is really about maintenance. A lot of it is about how much you have to maintain over time. Because that’s not sustainable to have to keep painting and maintaining or changing things. A lot of it has to do with using materials that have longer lives that require minimal maintenance.
A house that you’ve probably seen “A Tailors House”, is this concrete house that we’ve had pretty widely published at this point which has no sheet rock in it for example. The idea is that it’s minimum maintenance. But then it’s easy to get other stuff to work. It’s easy to incorporate solar panels where it makes sense, it’s easy to incorporate green roofs because they help in a lot of ways. So if the house’s natural design is a flat roof design, my standard flat roof is a green roof. Why wouldn’t it be? That’s the way you do it because why else am I up on that roof if the design evolved to properly having a flat roof. To me it’s a very organic process at this point.
One of the homes we did in Sag Harbor for example, my client loves to show off that his electric bill every month. On average it’s only twenty four dollars. There’s no fossil fuel on site, the house is as comfortable as you can be in a house whether it be winter or summer, and yet he barely spends any money on electricity. When you go to the house, you don’t see the photo voltaic panels that I designed into it for the hot water, the pool, or the thermoelectricity. Everything is integrated into their home so they don’t look like they’re just attached to them home.
On software design
My team works in 3D design software. The only thing I do digitally is that I sketch or I sketch over and I manipulate sketches on my iPad. I do not draw in AutoCAD, I don’t do anything like that, but I’ve tried. I feel detached from my hand and my brain with a mouse in my hand. It just doesn’t work for me. I’m happy to have a great talented group of people in our studio here and I start to feed them my sketches and what we’re doing mostly these days is we’re starting to build Sketchup models. It seems to be quick and easy. We did a number of projects that are on Revit a few years ago. I found it cumbersome, too time consuming for my needs. So I find that everybody feels really, really quick with the Sketch Up and we get the models up really quick and we start to feel the space and feel the three dimensionally quality of what we’re working with. Initially, it’s a great support to my hand designs.
On his favorite project
There is one recent projects done three years ago that was a little 1500 square-foot home we did on a hillside, the Port Washington Residence. What I like about that home is that I loved working in the small scale. It was challenging especially since it was on a cliff mostly. It seemed working on the small scale allowed us to use better quality materials, really pay attention to the details, and we were not waylaid or sidetracked on size and volume. The home nestles into this hillside and it just came out so great. The people were so thrilled living there and I just feel like every time I go there, I just look in and it’s a fresh surprise for me to go back to. You talk sustainability, right? We went to a reclaimed lumber yard in Brooklyn and I hand picked all those beams that are inside there. And we used these old timbers from demolished townhouses or brownstones to frame the house then leave them exposed. There was also a certain sheet rock in that house, not your normal, and all the walls in that house that are not glazed or wood are actually coated in a plaster that’s made from an organic clay plaster from New Mexico.
On the future of architecture
We do commercial work here as well, but our real forte is our single family residences. I’m very concerned that the digital era and the removal of one’s ability to think by themselves without a little digital assistance is becoming problematic. I notice in students, I notice even in people here, they sit on the boob tube, they’ve got their mouse and they’re snapping lines, they’re drawing lines, they’re trying to resolve things, they’re building 3D things. My students will come back the second week of the project assignment and show me the most magnificent 3D constructions, every shape, twirling, curved — it’s like it’s all done already because they could just do this. I have a nine and an eleven year old that do wonderful environments on their computer games and on their iPads. It’s amazing! But is that architecture? Does that translate to the building world in a way that means something to us as humans, the scale of us, the temperature of us, the nature of what we need? Is that what it comes down to, just form-giving and having 3D printers print our environments? I’m very concerned about that. I really want more of a return to thinking and idea making and not losing the ability to use our hands and using the technology as a support for that, not the creator of design.
In my lecture, I kind of say in one sense that the computers and the computing power and the tools we have have made most architects complacent. You build up your library, it’s there, it’s easy. We used to call it “pulling a design out of a drawer” but now you just just kind of click on a file, “Oh we have this, let’s borrow from this, let’s cut and paste that…” And you get very complacent. It’s great. It’s easy. You can make more money because you’re just repeating, repeating, repeating. That’s one aspect of it. And the other aspect is as I said before, it’s form follows form. It’s using computer design because you can. Instant, fabulous-looking created images and shapes and forms. In this day in age, with the construction work catching up technically, we’re with CNC machines and other things that can take computer files and create crazy shapes and build things. I’m just concerned that the very nature of us humans as thinkers is being overshadowed. I would like a little more return to thinking and using one’s hands. That’s what I would like to see evolve.
I was working on a new project with a client of mine yesterday afternoon who’s been a client of mine for thirty years. He goes back with me to the beginning, he loves the fact that I still hand sketch and he calls them, “Mickey Mouse drawings.” He said to me, “Narofsky, if you can live long enough through the coming technology you’re going to wave your hands in a three dimensional space and you’re gonna just pull three dimensional lines and plans and forms by standing in a space, wearing virtual glasses and you’re in a virtual room. You’re gonna make full-sized three dimensional constructions right from your brain in space. That’s how technology is going to support the way you think.” And I said, “Wow, I can see that.” I felt like Tom Cruise in that old Steven Spielberg movie [Minority Report] just waving his hands in his glass computer. Maybe that’ll be the evolution. Maybe it’ll evolve to the thinking using our hands and bodies just now bypassing keyboards, bypassing mouses, and we’re working in a free space now. Three dimensional sketchbook in real space. That would be interesting.
On what he wish he knew before beginning his career
I dwell on this all the time, so I’m just going to have to prioritize one answer for you. I’m constantly rethinking and revisiting. It’s more a universal answer that still applies to us being architects and that is: Go with your gut. Follow your own instincts. Do not let people manipulate or maneuver you into places you don’t want to be. You can relate that into my career having gone into a partnership that all looked great financially and it all looked there but it was a sale job. That’s one thing I wish I never did, to have given up my own freedom. But in all honesty, this is a partnership here and I am partnered with my wife but I don’t think of it as a partnership. So I follow my instincts. I’ll always try to sit back and think about my gut feeling regardless of what people say.