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American architect Antoine Predock on discovering the spirit of each place

Antoine Predock talks about his buildings that he says are experiential flows and rides that ‘mess’ with our expectations, enabling us to discover something new every time.

by Vladimir BelogolovskyPublished on : Jul 02, 2020

Antoine Predock (b.1936 in Lebanon, Missouri occupies a unique place in American architecture. Not being located on either East or West coast, he has been working almost exclusively outside of urban centres. He developed his unique, instantly recognisable language, characterised by poetic bold forms, evoking ancient ruins and seemingly emerging right out of the local geology, effectively blurring distinctions between manmade and natural, turning his fractured buildings into seamless environments that he refers to as rides. Predock studied architecture first at the University of New Mexico and obtained his Bachelor of Architecture from Columbia University in 1962. After traveling throughout Europe on a Columbia University Traveling Fellowship with focus on historical buildings in Spain and an internship in San Francisco with Gerald McCue, he established Antoine Predock Architect in 1966 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In 1985, the architect was awarded the Rome Prize with residency and study at the American Academy in Rome.

American architect Antoine Pedrock | Antoine Predock Architect Studio | STIRworld
American architect Antoine Pedrock Image Credit: Courtesy of Antoine Predock Architect

Predock won the 2006 AIA Gold Medal, and in 2007, he was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. In 2017, he gifted his former Albuquerque home to become the Antoine Predock Center for Design and Research, a design studio with workshop and archival display spaces to honor his great legacy. The architect designed over 230 projects, more than 100 were realised, including such acclaimed buildings as Nelson Fine Arts Center at Arizona State University in Tempe (1990); Venice Beach House in California (1991); American Heritage Center and Art Museum at the University of Wyoming (1993); San Diego Padres Ballpark, San Diego, California (2004); Austin City Hall, Austin, Texas (2004); Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada (2014); Arrival and Arts Center for Luxe Lake New Town, Chengdu, China (2018); and College for Journalism and Communication in Doha, Qatar (2018).

Spencer Theater, Alto, New Mexico | Spencer Theater | Antoine Predock Architect Studio | STIRworld
Spencer Theater, Alto, New Mexico Image Credit: Tim Hursley

Vladimir Belogolovsky (VB): What would you say your architecture is about?

Antoine Predock (AP): Architecture is a personal, poetic, and spiritual encounter with place. Architecture should emerge from its place. Architecture should be a ride – a choreographic, physical ride and an intellectual ride. It is about feelings, emotions, and experience. Architecture is an adventure, a fascinating journey towards the unexpected.  I want to search for the spirit of a place and be inspired by it. I am not trying to ‘find’ architecture. That would be a thing, an object, something that comes later – which will be a thing or object that will grow out of the encounter… and simultaneously a summation of one’s life experiences.

Tang Teaching Museum Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, New York | Tang Teaching Museum Skidmore College | Antoine Predock Architect Studio | STIRworld
Tang Teaching Museum Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, New York Image Credit: Tim Hursley

VB: Are you concerned about establishing a school of similarly minded architects in the region? Your architecture is based on such methodology that could be followed, so I would imagine other architects wanting to move in one direction with you.

AP: That’s not my goal at all. I don’t see my work turned into any kind of school of architecture. Every architect should be able to develop a deep personal encounter with the place where he or she builds. As an architect you have to be true to yourself. It does not matter if you are in a desert or a city, you need to find your own way, your unique path. And I am not just a local desert architect – I work in China, Taiwan, Qatar, Canada and currently in Costa Rica. My so-called regionalism is portable, I am not interested in having a ‘school of desert architecture.’   

White House, Scottsdale, Arizona | White House | Antoine Predock Architect Studio | STIRworld
White House, Scottsdale, Arizona Image Credit: Tim Hursley

VB: Could you go over your design process? What are some of the initial steps?

AP: Since we have an intimate studio, I want to have my hand in every step of the process of making a building from design to occupancy. And since my work involves far-flung sites throughout the world, I need to have an immediate immersion in the spirit of the place. So, I start with the making of a project-specific collage with my team. Each is about 4 X 12 ft and very much hands on – deeply exploring a particular place. I throw everything in there – diagraming deep geologic time, the indigenous people – interlaced with lines from fiction and poetry that build an atmosphere of a particular locale – the imagery ranges from the timeless to the topical and momentary. Then with that preparation, I begin to make loose sketches and more importantly shape a clay model. We work on breaking down the program, by cutting out small colour-coded blocks that represent the spaces in the program – to keep it real and to reflect our client’s requirements.

American Heritage Center University of Wyoming, Laramie, Wyoming | American Heritage Center University of Wyoming | Antoine Predock Architect Studio | STIRworld
American Heritage Center University of Wyoming, Laramie, Wyoming Image Credit: Tim Hursley

Making the clay model continues my hands-on personal involvement – hand and heart inspired by a vision of place and programmatic intention that is all-inclusive and all-consuming. I stay devoted to this process and while the form is emerging, I continuously keep an eye on the program blocks. It is not about creating an empty parametric model that looks cool. That would be irresponsible. The form comes through all the things that I soak up, what I learn about a place from our research, and from experiencing it firsthand. So, my process is very personal, but turning to my outstanding team to scan and digitise the clay model – setting the stage for many iterations of 3D printed model studies – and always comparing the computer model to the original clay model all the way through construction. We go back and forth between my hand-made model and the computer model. I am very dedicated to this process and drive my team crazy with my endless adjustments so they constantly must check their model against mine and not get too far ahead. We adjust and adjust, keeping it true. It is absolutely fun, challenging, and engaging for everyone.

Nelson Fine Arts Center Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona | Nelson Fine Arts Center Arizona State University | Antoine Predock Architect Studio | STIRworld
Nelson Fine Arts Center Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona Image Credit: Tim Hursley

VB: Let me ask you about Nelson Fine Arts Center in Tempe, Arizona, with its bold, fractured geometric forms. The project was a result of a competition that you won in 1985, the year when you just returned from the American Academy in Rome. What did it mean to you? Would you say that it helped you to find a particular direction in your career and served as a manifesto?

AP: I guess, what I was trying to do with that project is to escape this regionalist connection that you are trying to identify me with. [Laughs.] I really wanted to win that competition for an out-of-state project, competing against some of the big guys such as Edward  Larrabee Barnes and Barton Myers. I was doing that for the first time in my life. It was a fantastic opportunity and I had to win. I put a lot of energy and research into Sonoran Desert, leading to appropriate response and spatial relationships. The building is an experiential flow, with a descent into a subterranean chamber – from desert heat into coolness, shade, and water; then you ascend to the upper-level galleries through dimly lit passageways and trellis-covered walkways. It is all about environmental response to the desert experience, following a sheltered procession. An arcade doubles as an aqueduct, carrying water to a discharge point, something that I may have subconsciously brought from Rome.

Nelson Fine Arts Center Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona | Nelson Fine Arts Center Arizona State University | Antoine Predock Architect Studio | STIRworld
Nelson inspire Arts Center Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona Image Credit: Tim Hursley

But it was all about the desert. There are allusions to landscape formations. There were many things ranging from deep time to topicality and I ended up spending a lot of time in Arizona. While working on that project and shortly after, other Arizona projects started coming – a couple of houses in Paradise Valley and Scottsdale; Arizona Science Center in Phoenix; and Ventana Vista Elementary School in Tucson. That was the time when I focused on projects in Arizona, while also doing competitions for The American Heritage Center and Art Museum in Wyoming, Las Vegas Central Library and Children’s Museum and Cal Poly Pomona CLA building. That is what I mean by my ‘portable regionalism’ – discovering the spirit of each place.

VB: So, the Nelson project was a milestone that took you to another level. You became a more mature and confident architect, right?

AP: Sure, I was just a kid before that. Starting from 1985, I was ready to compete with anyone. Each new project was a search for me – an intuitive search, drawing on the specificity of far-flung sites. You may recognise my work, but there is no ‘style.’ I am interested in an immersion – discovering something new every time. I admired modernist projects, but I never bought into the idea of producing autonomous one size fits all buildings, like for example, the Parthenon. I love and respect those motherships of architecture, but I am much more interested in buildings that emerge out of the land itself in a choreographic, episodic way.

VB: You said that your buildings have apertures, not windows. What’s the difference?

AP: A window is a cliché, no responsibility. An aperture has responsibilities. It guides light. It focuses views. It releases space. An aperture can be controlled in so many ways. We do not use the ‘W’ word. Apertures try to be deep and purposeful.

Canadian Museum for Human Rights, Winnipeg, Canada | Canadian Museum for Human Rights | Antoine Predock Architect Studio | STIRworld
Canadian Museum for Human Rights, Winnipeg, Canada Image Credit: Michael Pratt

VB: Reading about your architecture I came across such descriptions as dance of light, theatricality, poetic encounter, magic, heroic, optimistic, spontaneous, procession, choreography. What other words would you use to describe your work or the kind of architecture that you try to achieve? 

AP: Kinesthetic would be one word. Another one is Breaking Bad. In that TV series set in Albuquerque, I loved Vince Gilligan’s understanding of the diverse settings, that so beautifully interpret a city where I have been living for almost 70 years. I create storyboards, just like for films. My architecture laces together the circumstantial and episodic.

Trinity River Audubon Center, Dallas, Texas | Trinity River Audubon Center | Antoine Predock Architect Studio | STIRworld
Trinity River Audubon Center, Dallas, Texas Image Credit: Tim Hursley

VB: You once suggested that messing with people’s perception is good. In what way?

AP: People have certain expectations of what architecture is. And I like to mess with that. But not in a self-conscious goofy way. That would be boring. I want to deal with unexpected light conditions, spatial drama, adventures, journeys. I like to surprise people… and a perceptual surprise can be very subtle. You have to realise that I grew up in a place where nothing was unexpected, not architecturally, anyway. There was nothing architecturally noble there, even if I looked for it. If you watch the series ‘Ozark’ on Netflix, that’s near where I was born – Lebanon, Missouri. As I mentioned before, encountering architecture by pure chance – by going with my family on trips to the West and discovering New Mexico when I was about ten… and later meeting professor Don Schlegel at the university, finding my destiny.

College of Media and Communication Education City, Doha, Qatar | College of Media and Communication Education City | Antoine Predock Architect Studio | STIRworld
College of Media and Communication Education City, Doha, Qatar Image Credit: Courtesy of Northwester University

VB: If you look around today, are there any particular architects whose work you appreciate and with whom you feel a rapport and commonality? 

AP: My friend, the master, Tadao Ando – I love his work. Who would not? Also, the work of my colleague and friend, Steven Holl. What I like about Steven is that every one of his projects is a unique search for meaning. And his contemplative and investigative watercolors are marvelous. He has profoundly deep intention in his projects and they are all very different. I also love the work of Kengo Kuma. He and I were in the design competition for the National Palace Museum in Taiwan, which my studio won. And I really respect the work of Renzo Piano, a great master.

VB: Your buildings are identifiable. They are, let’s be honest, something that could be called the Predock buildings. Would you agree?

AP: What do you mean?

Luxe Lake New Town Gateway, Chengdu, China | Luxe Lake New Town Gateway | Antoine Predock Architect Studio | STIRworld
Luxe Lake New Town Gateway, Chengdu, China Image Credit: Courtesy of Wide Horizons Development

VB: Your buildings have a particular DNA. This is conscious, right?

AP: I guess so. What do you think that is?

VB: Well, they are all the things, intentions, and methodologies that we’ve been discussing – working with your hands, making your forms emerge from the ground, creating a choreographed journey, and so on.

AP: Yes, all of that – and more.

What do you think?

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