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Career Case Study #2: Norman Jaffe

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It’s hard to get a handle on 1970s architecture. SOM were on a roll as their John Hancock Centre in Chicago had completed in 1969.


Osaka’s Expo ’70 showed off a multiplicity of styles and approaches that, with the exception of inflatable structures, correctly predicted the riot of the following ten years. There were megastructures, the neo-historic, the nationalistic, metabolistic, the crassly symbolic, ducks galore and some tensile supported sheds decorated redwhite’n’blue. That’ll be Great Britain lower left then.

Expo '70, Osaka, Japan
Expo ’70, Osaka, Japan

The Nakagin Capsule Tower – Tokyo, 1972.


Over in the US, the New York Five were doing their respective things. Here’s Richard Meier’s Douglas House. 1973.


The World Trade Centre opened the same year.


Essentially a creature of the fifties, The Sydney Opera House opened October 1973.


Aldo Rossi was big in Europe in the seventies and Japan in the eighties.


The Pompidou Centre opened 1977

440px-Pompidou_centerclosely followed by The Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts 1978.


Mies even der Rohe didn’t live to the 70’s but here’s his Kluczynski_Federal_Building designed 1960 but completed 1974 minus his vaunted sense of proportion.


Corporate buildings – or rather, corporate clients – were big. Here’s Roche-Dinkeloo‘s 1974 The Pyramids for the College Life Insurance Company of America Headquarters in Indianapolis.


In 1977 some guy called Frank Gehry did something weird to his house.

gehry house

  • Historians will remember the 1970s for Post-Modernism – mainly due to the never-ending efforts of Charles Jencks but, truth is, the seventies were everything and nothing. Big corporate architecture ruled and, though SOM were on trend, it would have been difficult to imagine the architecture of two, or even one, decade into the future. We, however, know what happened. Post-modernism overheated and made itself unpopular with clients with serious money – it’s flippancy appealing only to Disney.
  • Post-modern Classicism was the hasty adaption more suited to corporate and municipal images of themselves.
  • Simultaneously, High-tech was claiming to be a style for the future rather than the past. In the 1960’s prefabrication had been thought a bit iffy and downmarketish but High-Tech overcame this by prefabricating everything only once, thus making itself reassuringly expensive.
  • Nobody knew that the Sydney Opera House was an “iconic” building.

In all, it was a difficult decade in which to be an architect.

RULE #1: Choose your decade well. 

Norman Jaffe (1932–1993) did just that. Reimagining Wright is never a bad way to start a career. In the seventies at least, it combined a client-winning respect for the ‘old masters’ with a don’t-scare-the-horses progressiveness.


Wright was still well remembered and missed. The old boy had never been lacking in media-savvy but, as the century wore on, his media handling became increasingly out-of-touch.

Gropius, for example, had done the “smug architect in front of visionary design” thing way back in ’22.


What the decade needed was someone to update Wright and with a bit of flair. Norman Jaffe was probably that man.

Man with an Image: two-page spread from Men's Bazaar, 1967.

In all likelihood, Jaffe picked up a bit of media nous during the short time he worked in the office of Philip Johnson before starting his own Manhattan practice. Johnson later remembered Jaffe as “too talented to stay with him long“, inadvertently slighting all those who did.


Jaffe had begun visiting Long Island in the 1960s, and in 1973 he moved to Bridgehampton where he opened an architectural practice. He became the most prolific architect in the Hamptons at that time, designing more than 50 local houses, from small summer homes to large estates. 

The sentence

in 1973 he moved to Bridgehampton where he opened an architectural practice

doesn’t reveal much. People just don’t go places and open architectural practices. Between the 1960’s and 1973, Jaffe probably networked like hell, stashed away a bit of cash and, like any other architect starting out, as soon as he had one job on the go and the next one lined up, he made the move. The story goes that Jaffe didn’t want his young son to grow up in Manhattan and there’s probably some truth in that too since I hear that 1970s New York wasn’t such a great place. Although, to be fair, there’ll always be those who say New York lost its soul as soon as walking through Central Park after dark no longer meant certain death. In any case,

RULE #2: Choose your catchment area strategically. 

The Schulman House of 1968 was Jaffe’s first major project in The Hamptons.


Now the Hamptons isn’t a bad place to choose to open an architectural practice and get a reputation as a local architect. The summer there is pleasant, the pace no doubt relaxed, but more importantly it’s both remote from yet convenient to Manhattan and thus home-away-from-home for the rich and/or celebrated. It’s well moneyed.


By 1979 it was reported that Jaffe had become so popular and well known that he was able to choose what jobs he would take and was turning down nine out of 10 prospective clients attending his offices. There’s a full list of works here, on the site of the practice continued by aforementioned son Miles.

Jaffe also made Wright’s way with clients his own. Whether this reads as “uncompromising visionary” or “diva” depends on how many enemies one has. Jaffe made a few, notably actor Alan Alda whom you may remember from M*A*S*H (1972–1983), and his wife.


Five hundred letters regarding requested change orders were produced in court that had to judge upon matters such as whether the sound of a toilet flushing upstairs could be heard in the kitchen below. First world problems yes, but then The Hamptons is about as First World as it gets. [About this time, over in Palm Springs, John Lautner was having problems with a house for celebrity client Bob Hope and his wife.]


The Hope House was recently put on the market for US$50 mil. but, as of January 2014 there were still no takers at US$34 mil. 

RULE #3: Don’t sue celebrities. 

With the success of these early works came bigger commissions and even more spectacular projects. It was no longer the avant-garde who wanted Jaffe houses, it was those who wanted to be avant-garde. By the 1980’s much of the work became ostentatious (or as noted by Paul Goldberger in his book Houses of the Hamptons, ‘vulgar and bombastic’). Many of these projects were an exercise in ego, as much the client’s as the architect’s.

Hmm. I guessing this house might be one of them. “Priceupped”!? =(<<

meadow lane

Paul Goldberger wrote in Houses of the Hamptons, “He couldn’t reconcile anymore the millions of dollars spent on single-family dwellings used on weekends” but I don’t see why that should have been a problem for a neo-Wrightian.

Many architects do work of questionable quality for clients with too much money. In the seventies we used to call this “selling out”. These days we call it “success”.

RULE #4: Hold your nose.

The word ‘romantic’ is often used to describe Jaffe and his work. There’s a book, “The Romantic Modernist”.


‘Romantic’ in its architectural sense, is an adjective often applied to architects lacking a theory or rational explanation for why their buildings are the way they are. This went against the flow of 1970s. Intellectual, or pretending to be it, was in vogue. Post Modernism was intellectual. The NY5 were intellectual. Confession: In 1979, I thought Eisenman’s House X was the coolest thing – not that I could get my head around the plans or Eisenman’s concept – or at least the name – of “deep structure” appropriated from Chomsky.


With romantics, a roof might be flat because the architect feels a flat roof best “mediates” between the land and the sky. A roof might also be pitched for the same reason but the point is that architect knows best. It’s hard to know whether this attitude owes more to Frank Lloyd Wright, Howard Roark or, for all we know, Mike Brady (1969-1974).


Meier’s 1970s output might have looked a bit samey but Jaffe designed tens of houses for much the same people with much the same brief and on much the same sites in the same place. It’s easy to imagine that inspiration gets put under serious strain. How many ways can a roof mediate between the sky and whatever? If one doesn’t explore some kind of intellectual agenda then it becomes very difficult to be differently and convincingly romantic every time. The intellectual route may be bullshit but it is self-perpetuating and endless bullshit.

Ultimately, the New York Five and Venturi had more staying power. Eisenman, Gwathmey and, spectacularly, Graves, one by one gave up the white stuff and went with the flow. Meier kept going, presumably because he’d already consolidated a base of clients who liked to know what they’ll be getting. Here’s one of Meier’s recents.


From 1975 until he died in 2000 (cancer), the fifth New York Fiver, Hejduk, was more of an educator.

 RULE #5: Don’t swim against the current.

Jaffe drowned on August 19, 1993. The more I read about Jaffe the more I’m moved by the degree of personal interest and public speculation his death evoked. Neighbour and friend Tony Leichter said “He was an overconfident but poor swimmer.” There was speculation of suicide.

Other friends noted Jaffe’s late-life and sudden interest in Buddhism, Indian studies, the Cabala, whole-grain pancakes, miso soup, tofu, vegetarian hot dogs and lemon and mint tea and tried to find some sense out of that. I’m not so sure. It seems like Jaffe discovered the seventies in the nineties.

Media post-mortems speculated about whether Jaffe had been truly fulfilled. Charles Gwathmey is quoted as saying “I don’t think Norman thought he’d fulfilled either his potential or his subconscious aspirations, which I think is a terrible thing to confront in oneself. He was always conflicted about whether he was going to take the heavy jump and try to be a world-renowned architect as opposed to hanging out on the East End. Sometimes he liked the fact that he was regarded as the premier architect in a certain location. Other times he felt it that wasn’t enough.”

• • •

Nobody ever said of the man sometimes known as Le Corbusier that he was an overconfident but poor swimmer even though there’s no evidence LC died of a heart attack. Jaffe’s death was a very human one and it evoked some very human responses.

The world in 1993 already seems like a far nicer place. I know I know. Blame it on the internet! Take a look at our current crop of architects who have come of a certain age. And take a look at us. Do we wonder if Rem Koolhaas is personally fulfilled from what he does? Do we speculate whether Zaha Hadid is happy with her life? Do we lay awake wondering if Frank Gehry feels respect or contempt for his clients? No. We don’t. We don’t care who any of these people are or what they think or feel. The personas we see are media constructs and what we think we know is no more than what we’re told in order to keep their respective brands alive and relevant in our minds.

Brand founders are rarely in the office. Their inevitable deaths and subsequently permanent absence doesn’t mean the death of the brand. I predict posthumous buildings will be big this century.