William Morgan’s Architectural Odyssey

William Morgan’s Architectural Odyssey

By Max Eternity


For half a century, William Morgan has reigned as one of America’s most prolific Modernist builders.  It was fifty years ago, in 1960, when he first began his luminous career as an architect; forging a framework of eco-modern sustainable living by erecting sites respectful of the environment, also being elegant, accommodating dwellings that are very forward thinking.  (Click here for photo essay)

Though his buildings speak for themselves in aesthetic beauty, Morgan is known for his ability to synthesize the diverse language of architecture into visually stunning, yet approachable, functional structures that are counter-intuitive and enduring.

In his vision and commitment to an ecological design approach, Morgan’s oeuvre embodies works of profound simplicity, wed with an economical use of materials.  And as founder of William Morgan Architects, he and his firm have carved out a distinctive niche, seamlessly integrating the various sub-genres of modernism into a very unique style known as “Earth Architecture.”

Long before LEED certification, Morgan’s creative inertia had led him toward green, sustainable living, creating architecture that is durable and livable, iconoclastic and chic.

Studying under Walter Gropius at Harvard in the early-1950’s, Morgan is a progeny of the Bauhaus, and in his treatment of architecture as well-engineered visual art, his work demonstrates a deep conceptualization of Gropius’ Bauhaus motto “Art and Technology: A New Unity.” Recalling his educational experiences with Gropius, Morgan says “Gropius was very inclusive in his educational process.  He seemed to be able get his arms around all forms of design – respecting the authenticity in the ideas.”   (Click here for photo essay)

While at Harvard, in addition to being taught by Gropius, Morgan benefited as well from the tutelage of Josep Lluis Sert, a protégé of, Le Corbusier.

Quite impressive, but it gets even better, as Morgan is also a former employee to Paul Rudolph—a Modernist giant who along with Gropius, Mies Van Der Rohe, Marcel Breuer, Frank Lloyd Wright and a handful of others was crowned in 1956 by Time magazine,  a “Form Givers” of the 20th Century.

Working for Rudolph, Morgan started out sweeping the floors, running errands and  performing other menial tasks and odd jobs.  However, it wasn’t long before he had become the manager of Rudolph’s Cambridge office, assisting with the details of major projects like the Jewett Art Center at Wellesley College and US Embassy in Jordan.  Reflecting on his time with Rudolph, Morgan remembers him once saying “…if a building is not built, you will not have architecture.  You don’t have architecture until it’s in 3 dimensions—experiencing it in the light of day.  Then you understand what it is.  Drawings on paper are not architecture.”

Having studied under Gropius and worked for Rudolph, Morgan could have stopped there,  relying on great references and a solid foundation in architecture to secure his status as a noteworthy builder.  But instead of resting at that plateau, he plunged himself into an independent study of indigenous world cultures, becoming self-taught in archeology and anthropology, subsequently authoring many books on the subject.

During the 1970’s, Morgan researched and documented more than 400 Native American earth mound sites, pouring that knowledge in his first book published in 1980, entitled Prehistoric Architecture in the Eastern United States. His most recent book, published in 2008, is aptly titled Earth Architecture; a fitting title for subject matter on several of his residential homes that literally grow out of rolling hills and dunes.

Speaking to this, one of the most defining aspects to his work is how he relates building man-made structures to the lay of the land.  The Hilltop House comes to mind, as does the Dune Houses—an intimate duplex of curvaceous cave-like lairs.

Naturalistic and exotic, his work continues to go back to what he calls “an unshakable concern and interest for a curiosity about the beginnings of creativity.”

Two monographs have been written about Morgan, one of which by noted architect, scholar and author Robert McCarter.  It is part of a series of books written in homage to revered builders.  Published by Images Publishing in 2002, it is entitled “The Master Architect Series IV: William Morgan.”

The book’s foreword is written by Eduard F. Sekler, Emeritus Professor of Architecture at Harvard University, who says of Morgan “The tectonics of gravity bound bermed earthworks as William Morgan likes to use them, with their connotations of protective solidity and organic linkage to the mother earth, differ fundamentally from the tectonics of the modular skeletal constructions he equally likes to employ, with their implications of lightness and aerial openness, enhanced by widely cantilevered overhangs.” Sekler’s articulation goes to the heart of what Morgan does—reconciling intellectual impossibilities like day and night, turning site-specific challenges into assets, turning assets into triumphs.

Within the lengthy introduction of the book McCarter says “Morgan’s lifelong research into archaic architecture has focused on the most recent cultural beginnings on earth…Morgan can truly be said to have schooled himself in the roots of humanity around the world.  In his pursuit of modern architecture grounded in the analyses of ancient precedents, Morgan is more like the first generation of modernists, such as Wright and Le Corbusier, who were deeply indebted to the great monuments in history…” Continuing on, McCarter makes a stunning observation of Morgan’s four philosophical tenets in urban design.  The first of which he describes as buildings that “…define urban street edges…to reinforce the public spaces of the city; accommodating parking under or within the building, so as to avoid the destruction of existing fabric…” In doing this, McCarter says Morgan gives “public spaces back to the city”

In the course of his career Morgan has received more than 100 architectural awards, with his firm having built more than 200 sites, including such major institutional and public works as the Florida State Museum of Natural History, the U.S. Federal Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, the Westinghouse World Headquarters in Orlando as well as the Bloomingdale’s store in Miami and Neiman Marcus in Ft. Lauderdale.  (Click here for photo essay)

Morgan has served as the Beinecke-Reeves Distinguished Chair in Architectural Preservation at the University of Florida, and he is a Graham Foundation Grantee for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts.  In 1998, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) bestowed an Institute Honor on Mr. Morgan, in recognition of his lifelong research into the beginnings of architectural creativity.

Earlier this year, Morgan took time to chat, looking back on challenges and career highlights during his many years in practice.  He talked about where it all began, also speaking in detail about some of his more memorable projects.  And though ailing in health at 80 years old, Morgan memory is surprisingly focused and sharp as a tack.  Morgan began by talking about his friendship with architect Phillip Johnson.

 

Max Eternity (ME):  So tell me about Phillip Johnson.  You and he were friends?

 

William Morgan (WM):  Phillip is [was] outrageous.  He was a scalawag (laughs).  Most people take him seriously, but he was always pulling jokes.

 

I met him formally thought Paul Rudolph.  Johnson would come to the office on Harvard square.  He would come in from time to time–his office was in New York.  I remember he happened to working at that time on the Seagram building plaza.  We’d go across the street to a Chinese diner place.  It’s still there.  We’d sit down at 2pm.  We never got out before dark.

 

Rudolph and Johnson would talk about the good old days studying under Gropius.  Paul was so amused by Phillip.  He found him so extraordinary.

 

Phillip would invent these movements in architecture, and start a whispering campaign in New York, that this was the latest thing, or that was, to get people talking.  He’d just wait for it to take over, and then he’d be the new spokes man, going on lecture tours.

 

ME:  I’d like to go back to last year when we first met.  I was working on a story about the 90th anniversary of the Bauhaus.  I contacted by way of Francis Lott, who owns one of your houses, and you and told me about some of your experiences studying under Bauhaus founder, Walter Gropius; also how you subsequently worked with Paul Rudolph.  I distinctly recall you saying how well Gropius understood design, that he was able to impart wisdom to others in a brilliant way.  Elaborate on that if you will.

 

WM:  That sounds like my most vivid recollection.  He [Gropius] used to get up on the desktops. Gropius would look down on a drawing to see it directly on. He didn’t want to see it at an angle, but to see it as if pinned up on a wall. I remember him walking around on the desktops (laughs). It was a matter of perspective, understanding everything with no distortion.

 

ME:  In addition to the Bauhaus anniversary, last 2009 also marked the 50th anniversary of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.  However, this year marks the 50th anniversary of your own firm, William Morgan Architects.  First a much deserved congratulations–how it feels to have lasted for so long.

 

WM:  (laughs)  Gosh, thank you.  I only wish I had had the agility today that I had then.  Then I had agility, but did not know what to do with it.  Somewhere between now and then, the ratio changed.

 

ME:  What is your favorite aspect to building?  I know you have an interest in the primitive, and I know you have an interest in the natural—the environment.  But I’m not sure I know what drives your heart to create.  You tell me.

 

WM:  I think when I figure that out, I’ll let you know.  I haven’t gotten there yet.

 

I just don’t understand where it all comes from, but I am surprised at some of the things that I do.  I seem to have disdain for architecture as this commodity; people who look at me and say ‘you’re a very professional person’, thinking that means I’m wealthy.  I’m not very wealthy. On the other hand, I’ve turned down commissions.  I’ve walked away from hundreds of thousands of dollars–millions, because of my belief of architecture.  Much more than anything else, I trust it first.

 

ME: So, tell me about working with Paul Rudolph.

 

WM:  That was in the 1950’s, just after I had come back from Korea, the war.  I was sort of the office boy.  I swept the floors.  I ran out to buy stamps…you know, all the important architectural work (laughs).  I had been a commander in the navy, to return to do all these trivial things.

 

Rudolph apologized for not having better work for me at the time.

 

We were in Cambridge, right near Harvard, where I was being schooled.  Paul did tell me that there was nothing that was equal to my particular talents, because he though I didn’t have any (laughs).  I said, well I appreciate that (laughs again).

 

In time, I ran the office.  After the drawings were completed [by Rudolph], like the Jewett Art Center at Wellesley College, I would clean up drawings.  Then, we had completed the designs.  These were things that I worked on.  The US Embassy in Jordan, Paul designed a magnificent building for that.

 

I recall, we worked with Hideo Sasaki.  There are so many memories.

 

ME:  If you were asked, what kind of architect are you—your internal design program—what might you say?

 

WM:  Well, I think the Earth Architecture is part of a general interest of mine that underlies.  I think what I’m very interested in is beginnings, origins and authenticity.  And, how things start and why they start—what directions they take.  Exactly, why those directions?  I’m bored and disinterested by stylistic interpretations by those origins.

 

Me.  How are your houses different today than form the era of the James House?

 

WM:  The earlier houses, where I am now is like where I was then.  Everything I’m doing is a new beginning.  My point of origin is the same as it was as the James House.  There were meager funds available.

 

What could one do and still have architecture in the end?  I recall that house was built for $8.50 sq ft.

 

That house cost around $15,000.  That was an average cost back then.  But, to introduce a two story space and bridge that ran between towers for such a modest house was remarkable.  That building always elevates my spirits to walk in that house.  It’s a good house.

 

ME:  Yes indeed.  So what’s the story on the Dune Houses?

 

WM:  I thought we could preserve the live vegetation.  And we could see in a shape how big/how high that natural feature would be.  Then we imagined taking that shape and building within the earth two cave-like structures with large openings toward the ocean front.  No others openings except the west side—access for automobiles.

 

That’s exactly what we did.

 

The wall shapes came from a thought of mine from my navy days; having been in submarines below the water line.  You notice that the hulls are always curved—shaped like a cigar.  The idea of shaping a structure that would be rounded.

 

ME;  You built your own house on a broken dune, thus rescuing land that had been abandoned after a bad storm.  But this theme continued–building on broken, abandoned dunes, like the Oceanfront House built for George Goodloe.

 

WM:  It’s just a half a block north of the William Morgan house.  Goodloe and I went to high school together.  He’s a Georgia Tech engineer.  The [Oceanfront] house is a triplex, built in thirds, and was built on a dune just like my house.

 

The triplex was built as low as possible in elevation.  The roofline is sloped so that the property uses 100% on the oceanfront.  But is does not obstruct the view of the breakers from inshore houses build behind 350ft away.  This was a foresight, knowing very well that there was just no reason to hog and wall off the ocean front, just because we could.  All the other houses build by other architects have been built so close together they make a wall.  It’s like asking the lady in church to take her hat off.

 

It’s about using the shape of the earth to fit the needs of human beings, and it’s my contention that in this particular example that we as humans have not respected the terrain, respecting the contours of the earth—using that to create the most affordable houses that you could.

 

Building a wall and trashing everything in shore is avarice at worst.

 

ME:  The Treehouse is not particularly grand, but it’s definitely one my favorites.  What’s the vision behind that? You talk about earth architecture, and now tree architecture?

 

WM:  A tree is small in [ground] space, and as it rises it branches, becoming much larger than its base.  This house does the same.  You stick cars in the bottom because they don’t care what they are looking at.  You go up higher and that’s for living.  The best views in the house are on the top floor.  That would be for the master bedroom.  All in all, the air-conditioned space of that house is 1,000 sq ft.

 

ME:  So, tell me about the municipal building you created from a repurposed parking garage—The State Offices in Parking Garage?

 

WM:  It was really 3 things.  On the bottom, parking.  In the middle, offices.  And the top was an open amphitheatre for people to gather and view.

 

I remember I went to a political rally for Carter (president) and there were concerts by the river front.  I thought that was a very good use for the building that would otherwise deny the public from being able to view the river–St Johns River.

 

The Governor’s office commissioned me to work for them for a project in 2 stages–to find a sight and build a building.  We looked and I thought that that parking lot offered the best opportunity of all the sites we looked at; serving as an example of what buildings could be in the downtown area—how the public and private interest could work together for the betterment of both. This was my conceptualization.

 

The property was being used by the city as a parking area and we proposed a parking area inside the building.  We offered substantially more parking in a multi-storied area than the city had been getting in a single floor arrangement.  Before it was a bulkhead parking lot; retaining the earth from being scoured by water.

 

ME:  I so enjoy talking with you.  I could talk for hours on end, but is there any last thought you have to share?

 

WM:  You know, Rudolph used to say he felt guilty at taking money for doing something that he loved so much–working on architecture.  And I very much feel the same way.

 

ME:  Bill, thanks for sharing all this wonderful information with me.

 

WM:  Any time Max—I’m happy to do it.

 

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