An Interview with Thomas Phifer, FAIA

School News

An Interview with Thomas Phifer, FAIA

April 10, 2015


Thomas Phifer, FAIA currently holds the Jon Adams Jerde, FAIA Chair in Architecture and is teaching a graduate design studio called “Village Chapel: Meditation Space in the City.”


After founding his New York-based firm Thomas Phifer and Partners in 1997, he has gone on to complete numerous projects including the United States Courthouse in Salt Lake City, the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, the Raymond and Susan Brochstein Pavilion at Rice University in Houston, and many private residences. Current projects include an expansion of the Corning Museum of Glass, a new museum for the Glenstone Foundation in Pontiac, Maryland, and a new street light fixture for New York City. His designs have been honored with numerous AIA awards, including seven AIA National Honor Awards and twelve AIA New York Honor Awards. In 2004, Phifer was awarded the Medal of Honor from the New York Chapter of the AIA. In 1996 he was a recipient of the prestigious Rome Prize. He received his Master of Architecture degree from Clemson University in 1977.


Guy Horton recently spoke with Phifer about what inspires him, his interest in the deeper meanings of light in architecture and the studio he is running as the visiting Jerde Chair.


Guy Horton: What do you value most in architecture?

Thomas Phifer: The experience of moving through space. To get up as the sun rises and to move through space with light. Moments like this are poetic.


GH: What drew you to light as a key element in your designs?

TP: Light embeds us in nature. It marks our lives, the procession of time. It changes constantly and marks our moments here. Getting light involved in the spaces we inhabit is a way of reconnecting with nature. The book In Praise of Shadows (an essay on aesthetics by Japanese novelist Junichiro Tanizaki, 1933) is important to me. It’s about the different qualities of light, its spatial subtleties.


GH: What do you strive for in your projects?

TP: What we do, the more mature I get, is listen. You listen to the people who will inhabit what you are making. You listen to the place and light and atmosphere, to culture. You listen to the lan, if you are building in the landscape. This is extremely important, to not automatically install your will on the place. As an architect you will do this anyway at some point, but first you have to listen.


GH: What or who are your inspirations?

TP: I think Louis Kahn has that way of majesty with light and connections with places. He had a love for extraordinary tectonic architecture that is so clear and crisp. I’m also inspired by art. Ad Reinhardt’s “black” paintings were an inspiration for the Glenstone Museum. You get lost in the work and begin to see these beautiful geometries emerge in red and blue. I wanted the architecture to be like this. It’s about slowing down and experiencing the space, to intensify the experience. Other inspirations include Carl Andre, Michael Heizer, Richard Serra, Roni Horn, and environmental artist Mary Miss. Also Donald Judd. He was important for the Salt Lake City Courthouse. His aluminum boxes embodied light, held the light in a simple form that honored the material.


GH: What was your path to architecture?

TP: My father came back from the war (World War II) and became a house builder. This was in the early 50’s. I would go out to jobsites with him, and at night the drawings would be spread out on the floor, and we would look at them together. From this, I think, I slowly became an architect. I still am slowly becoming an architect. If you don’t let it evolve, you’re not watching very closely.


GH: Was there ever an epiphany for you as you were evolving as an architect?

TP: It’s been a very slow process of evolution, I think. There were never any epiphanies, just a gradual unfolding. You keep your eyes open and a sense of curiosity, and it slowly comes to you. The trick is in recognizing it when it comes. This can be harder of course.


GH: Why teach and what do you like about teaching?

TP: I learn more by teaching. You learn an enormous amount from students. It goes back to the parable told by Louis Kahn about the student and the teacher sitting under a tree. After a while the student becomes the teacher. They start teaching each other and start to blend together. You become the student again. It’s an extraordinary learning experience.


GH: What is your studio, “Village Chapel,” about?

TP: We are doing a chapel, a meditative space in a busy urban neighborhood. It’s about ways of being part of a neighborhood, a kind of procession, or choreography through space. A sense of silence and meditation. It’s all about a journey, leaving the neighborhood behind and entering into a rich silence.


GH: As a teacher, what do you feel is most important in architectural pedagogy today?

TP: In these days when there are so many images, forms, and examples of flamboyant work, it’s important to try to take it back to the experience of space. We aren’t making forms. We are making experiences and dealing with light.


GH: In this age of pervasive computing, data, and technology in architecture, what other things are important for students to be aware of?

TP: Students need to learn how to listen to themselves, to the site, to the light. Rather than bringing an initial reaction and responding quickly, it’s about a slower, more patient process based on experience, smell, touch. It’s a way of experiencing that will produce an atmosphere and a sense of mystery. I try to keep students on this path, reminding them of the world of experience. We work on seeing and feeling in space.