by Vladimir BelogolovskyJul 20, 2023
Brian Healy was born in Gary, Indiana, and grew up on the East Coast in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. He studied architecture at the Pennsylvania State University, receiving his Bachelor’s in 1978. He earned his Master of Architecture degree from the Yale School of Architecture in 1981 where he was the editor of Perspecta 19: The Yale Architecture Journal. Healy worked at the offices of Charles Moore, Cesar Pelli, and Richard Meier before founding his own practice in Boston in 1985. The architect has taught architectural design studios and seminars at over 20 colleges and universities across North America, including at both of his alma maters. Healy was the 2004 president of the Boston Society of Architects and, from 2011-2014 he served as Design Director at Perkins + Will.
Healy has designed and built numerous homes and multi-family residential projects across the country, primarily in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Illinois, and California. Prominent public buildings include the Student Center at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell, Massachusetts; Grant Recital Hall at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island; Education and Community Center at Korean Church of Boston in Brookline, Massachusetts; along with Lincoln Street Garage in Boston.
A recent collection of Brian Healy’s work, Commonplaces: Working on an American Architecture (www.oropublishers.com), opens with a statement by Juhani Pallasmaa: “Brian Healy's projects appear sober and moderate, yet elegantly sensuous. They make one think of the innocence of early Modernism and the unpretentiousness of vernacular traditions…His projects reveal an insightful, layered, and subtle thinking process.” In the interview that follows, I talked to Healy about some of the lessons he learned from his professors at Yale, his paintings being integral to his design process, the sculptural and abstract qualities of his buildings, and how he empowers students to explore new worlds they can discover and build.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: I read that you get more pleasure from looking at paintings rather than architecture. Could you talk about that?
Brian Healy: That is true if the emphasis is on looking rather than experiencing. If I had to sit in a lawn chair in front of a building then, yes, I would rather sit in front of a painting. I find paintings challenging and inspirational. Architecture can do the same, but you must get out of that chair. You must move around. Architecture is not a static thing. It is dependent on the weather, the season, the time of day, aging, and on and on. When I was at school those experiential factors, were “out there,” not in the studio. I guess you could say, we also needed to get off that stool in the studio – or the bar stool – and walk around. Conveniently, New Haven has many great buildings and spaces to explore – many good places to get lost in.
VB: You also paint on the side. What kind of paintings are they?
BH: I would not call it “on the side” – it is integral. My paintings are not directly related to the projects. The collages are, I suppose, as I work on them to study the projects – working on composition, proportion, texture, etc. But when I look at my paintings over the years, even if they are unrelated to my projects, they are usually paintings of various buildings. As we speak, and I look around the studio, I see the Pyramids in Giza, a house on Key West, and a dozen or so new studies of a little chapel that I love up here in New Hampshire caught in a storm.
VB: Are these paintings abstract reinterpretations? You don’t paint what you see, right?
BH: [Laughs.] Well, that’s a good and provocative question! I paint what I see. You may think it is abstract, but I paint what I see.
VB: Robert McCarter suggested that Wright’s Usonian Houses are perhaps closest in spirit to your buildings. Could you talk about some of your strongest influences?
BH: It is very nice of Robert to say that. It was taken as an enormous compliment and challenge. He is a teacher of teachers, as well as students and other architects, and – at the University of Florida – was one of the first to invite me to teach a design studio. I have probably visited two dozen of those Wright homes across the country. What I think Robert meant was that a parallel path between Wright’s Usonian houses and mine exists. They both incorporate a sense of shelter, domesticity, scale, proportions, fragility, materiality, and so on.
My grandparents grew up in Oak Park, where everyone was aware of Wright, of course. He was always a strong reference for me. Yet, even though his work is so public, so vast, and so incredible, I don’t remember his name ever being mentioned during my years at Yale. There was more focus on European modernists, such as Aalto, Schindler, Neutra, Breuer (all practicing here), and American architects such as Kahn, Sullivan, and Rudolph. These are the architects that deeply influenced me – as, of course, Wright did. All these architects were making architecture as they saw fit – for that place and time – and it did not seem prescribed or formulaic to me.
A contemporary architect whose work I admire greatly is Alvaro Siza. Yet, I have to say that all these architects create the kind of work that cannot be taught. What I mean by that is that it is intuitive, visceral, and very personal. And it being personal can make some people uncomfortable because – if it is personal then it is individual – and it cannot be promoted as a methodology or a system. It seems to me that individualism and a healthy disregard for preordained paths feed art and it should fuel design. But I haven’t seen it encouraged in our schools or professional offices. When I talk about individualism, I am not promoting mindless expression or dismissing precedents. I am talking about reinvention, reexamining, rediscovering, and illuminating some fundamental values that were articulated by those who preceded us – and a few currently working alongside that still do. What’s important to me is to acknowledge that great architecture comes from the study and experience of other works whether vernacular or heroic. It is critical to rethink old questions within each new circumstance.
VB: Could you talk in more detail about one of your projects, Harbor House in Sag Harbor, New York? The reason I picked it is that it appears to be a very sculptural and abstract work, perhaps inspired by some cubist paintings. Irrespectively of how it works, what’s the context, and what life goes in it, I like its abstract nature and potential for inhabiting it. It also appears to be a part of a series, a pursuit of a sculptural idea, meaning it goes beyond its program. And your houses seem to share a common language, they are a family, right?
BH: I never thought of it that way, but I can see that – each house has its own history – but they could also be seen as an extended family. The house on Long Island came out of many conversations with CJ, my client. He is a movie producer who would ride his motorcycle up from New York to Boston for our meetings. He said that he needed the time to get ready for our discussions. For him, like everything else, the house was an adventure. It was going to be his second home, not a primary residence, but he wanted something special, and he believed that I was the right person to help him. As you mentioned, it is like other houses that we have built. It is perhaps a bit simpler than some houses in California, Pennsylvania, or New Jersey. But it was special for me to be working with him on such a beautiful site. There is a twist in the geometry that I think adds intimacy to the common areas and allows it to be less static. There is also a shift in that building – it turns in on itself protecting inside and looking out onto the harbor. That adds a sculptural element and makes the interior quite intimate.
VB: Is there one manifesto project in your work that pointed in a certain direction for you? In other words, was there an epiphany moment in your practice that suddenly gave you a new sense of direction?
BH: I think the path meanders and it is very much about change and evolution. I am interested in discovering the new potential for each place rather than applying something or projecting my own meaning or style. I taught architecture for many years and I think in school it is important to empower students by letting them explore what they are interested in – new worlds that they can discover. I get tired of listening to faculty who are always telling students what they are supposed to be doing. As educators, we should allow students to explore and express what they think their place in the world is. They should be allowed to initiate the discussion in the studio.
VB: You just mentioned your teaching experience. What is it that you like about it most and what is your favourite assignment for students?
BH: I always encourage students to begin by looking at great precedents such as a house by Barragan, Schindler, Aalto, Wright, or Zumthor. To build a model of that project, in order to study and understand the setting and the drawings it generated. The idea is to establish a methodology – how do you get from nothing to something? To do so, you need to identify a design path for yourself. Once you study a particular work in depth – by making a model and reconstructing drawings – it gets into your blood and you start relating to it – start wanting to change it. We are not making things up; we are building our ideas on the shoulders of other people who have done great work. And, for me, that’s what architecture is about. We don’t start from nothing, we continue what others have already begun – intellectually, compositionally, socially, and philosophically.
VB: And what happens after such analysis?
BH: After a couple of weeks of analysing a certain precedent, I would ask students to design another building type in a particular part of a city. It’s interesting that once they studied a particular work, I have often found that there is an unavoidable dialogue between what they studied and the development of their own design project. The analysis had set a standard, if you will. They now understand what a plan is, what a section is, and what a building may look like. It opens avenues into new ways of thinking. It also creates a great starting point for their own individual analysis and design. It is not about how to dream up something completely new, but about asking fundamental questions such as a place having its own history.
VB: You said, “Architecture is not just about forms and materials, it is a social act.” Did you refer to your floating residential community project on water in Boston Harbor?
BH: Yes, and others, but Floatyard is a great experiment. Ed Nardi commissioned this project a few years back. We had worked together on several projects in the city before this one. He had a speculative and provocative idea to reenergise Boston Harbor and animate its edges. He wondered if a building could float. He simply asked, “What if we make a site instead of finding one?”
He was thinking about the abandoned piers along the coast of Charlestown, and Boston Harbor, which used to be the center of our city. It was an industrial zone, but now was being repurposed and animated with structures in place of coastal shipyards. It was right on the water. We found precedents in cities like Amsterdam. So, it is not as novel as it first may seem. And it is not going to be limited to people who live there; it is about bringing the city to the water and the harbor back to the shoreline. We addressed the issue of rising sea levels and proposed using pneumatic pistons that would adjust the building’s level along with the rising tide to generate energy. It is a speculative project, of course, still ongoing, but full of potential.
VB: Your friend Marlon Blackwell wrote that you have a deep love for ordinariness. What do you think he meant?
BH: Marlon likes to talk about architecture as being “a matter of inches.” I suppose that he means the everyday – the chores, the groceries, the cooking, food, drink, maybe your pillow. Great buildings are all achieved through hard work. Anyone can understand a great work of architecture, but you need some beauty and a good plan. It isn’t magic – it’s inches, not feet. We need to create beautiful places for people to live and to share with others.
VB: You have travelled the world; wouldn’t you agree that there are masterpieces out there so powerful that they come pretty close to being magical?
BH: Magical? Yes, but they don’t come from magic. There’s no pixy dust that I know of. They come from intuition, study, patience, culture, and hard work – probably with many subliminal connections that we chose to overlook. After graduation, I traveled around the world by myself for a year, exploring ancient ruins in Ireland, Italy, Greece, Crete, Sudan, Egypt, India, Nepal, and Thailand. The Taj Mahal was out of this world but so were the caves at Ajanta and Ellora.
VB: Juhani Pallasmaa said, “The door handle is the handshake of the building.” Could you talk about how you approach some of the smallest details in your work? What are your priorities?
BH: I love Juhani’s many great observations, but I do not think his intention was that we all start designing doorknobs. I prefer other reflective notions such as “the patience of a tree.” I recall a special visit to the Villa Mairea with him with a few other American architects and educators back in 2006. He is a kind and generous soul who is open to sharing and hearing other thoughts. It seemed the sensory and auditory aspects of architecture were very important to him such as the resounding footfall that announces your entry into the beautiful country church in Petäjävesi, Finland.
VB: In many years of practice what are some of the key lessons you learned about practicing architecture that you would like to share?
BH: Engaging architecture requires a multitude of experiences. It is a difficult process and a difficult profession, and I would not choose anything else. But you really need to love it and, in order to love it, you need to come to your own understanding of its role in your life and the lives of others. It is not preordained, neutral, static, or limited to preconceptions that are either yours or those of others.
VB: What words or short phrases would you use to describe your work or the kind of architecture that you try to achieve?
BH: I love that architecture is specific. It is always someplace; it can’t be anyplace. A good building is always an addition to its place, to what is there. Nothing is ever completely new, and one needs to understand what is there before adding to it. Good architecture is about integrity, beauty, compassion, how it sits on the site, and a commitment to its neighbours.