Oct 4, 201311:00 AMPoint of View
Q&A: Wid Chapman
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Though I’ve known architect Wid Chapman for many years, it was only recently that I learned about his connections to the first generation of modern designers, whose ground-breaking contributions shaped the built environment. But the modern edge was fortuitously softened by Wid’s parents’ love of historic buildings and places. So I could not resist asking him about his stellar architectural pedigree, and to share with you his personal glimpse into those times and persons whose work lives on today. More than that, I was curious about how his personal history has created who he has become, principal at New York’s Wid Chapman Architects and a passionate teacher of future interior designers.
Susan S. Szenasy: Your family history reads like the beginnings of modern architecture in the US. Your dad, Allan, studied at the GSD with Sert and Gropius and worked at TAC where he met your mom, Amy. In conversations with your parents, what did you hear them say about their experiences that made you choose architecture as your own path?
Wid Chapman: It’s difficult to be specific about the influence of my parents in my early years, but architecture and design were always brought to our attention--both mine and my sisters’. It never occurred to me that in other families it was probably never discussed. I was five when I moved to a new house of my father’s design in suburban Boston, where he worked on his first major commission, five buildings for a private boys’ school. His partner at that time was Rem Huygens, who had recently moved to New York from Holland. They met in Marcel Breuer’s office.
While my father studied at Harvard and worked for both Breuer and Walter Gropius, the European version of modernism, the International Style, was only one influence on his work. (Indeed, our house was inspired by one-way-pitched-roofed French farm structures; our conservative neighbors derided it as a “chicken coop”). The Dutch had always had a special connection with the early work of Frank Lloyd Wright and Rem, in particular, brought this influence to the partners’ work. While they eventually opened their own offices, Rem remained a close friend of mine until his death a few years ago. In the 1960s, he built a charming house in the town next to ours. It was published in 1967 in Architectural Record. Our own “chicken coop” was published in Better Homes and Gardens in 1968.
I think my father never felt a big difference between the influence of Wright and the traditional houses in Japan. As much as Gropius was respected, my father saw his influence as more social than architectural. On the other hand, he was opposed to the social influence of Le Corbusier—the tall units of housing set in a park much like the blighted public projects all over New York City. Yet he admired Ronchamp and the Guggenheim, but he never stopped criticizing the influence of Frank Gehry. I think he always thought the influence of the simple Japanese house, the Barcelona Pavilion, and the Farnsworth House are there to remind us not to stray too far from the objectives of early modernism.
Amy Chapman TAC mural
Courtesy The Architects Collaborative
My father and mother met at the office of Gropius (The Architects Collaborative, or TAC) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. My mother had just returned from a year in Europe, which followed a BFA at Yale with the Bauhaus color theorist Joseph Albers. Guest critics there included Ad Reinhardt, Stuart Davis, Alexander Calder, and Louis Kahn. Albers’ book, Interaction of Color, included my mother’s work, and they’ve just released a 50th anniversary interactive, digital version of it.