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Profile: Thomas Phifer: Light on the Subject

Don’t be fooled by his mellow, self-effacing demeanor: Architect Thomas Phifer is a master of his craft, designing daylit, minimalist buildings that meld the ideals of classic modernism with 21st-century innovations.

Thomas Phifer is one of the most subdued architects you’ll ever meet. Sitting in his all-white New York office in a navy suit, reclining diagonally in a straight-backed chair, he speaks in a low and measured tone. When he’s being pensive—–which is most of the time—–he closes his eyes as he talks and bobs his hand gently in front of him like a conductor, as if coaxing out words. To hear him better, I lean in, block out the blaring car horns outside. In this way, he is like his architecture: exquisitely quiet, subtle, and absorbing.

Phifer has been practicing architecture for 34 years, as a partner at Richard Meier’s office from 1986 to 1996, and as founding principal of his firm, Thomas Phifer and Partners, since 1996. He designs beautiful buildings—–minimalist steel-and-glass houses, a daylit museum—–but his architecture is about much more than eye candy. “We work a lot with nature, trying to bring people more in touch with their environment in a subliminal way,” he says, in a subtle South Carolina twang (he grew up in Columbia and went to architecture school at Clemson University). “Our buildings want to be helping hands, bringing people closer to understanding the sun, and light, and the change of seasons. For far too long, buildings have been fortresses, cutting people off from nature.”

His masterwork to date—though he’s far too humble and cool-headed to call it that—may well be the Fishers Island House, a second home he designed recently for Tom Armstrong, the director emeritus of the Whitney Museum of American Art, and his wife, Bunty. Set on an island off the coast of Connecticut and surrounded by gardens, the house embodies Phifer’s design sensibility. The pavilionlike building sits lightly in the landscape, both aesthetically (with its wraparound glass facade and minimal interior walls, the place is literally see-through) and ecologically, thanks to geothermal heating and natural ventilation. An aluminum-and-steel-rod trellis encircles the house at roof height, modulating natural light that washes in through the 12-foot-high glass walls.

During the design process, Armstrong stopped by the office weekly to check on the house and discuss the latest drawings. That could be an architect’s nightmare, but Phifer embraced the opportunity to relate so closely with a client. “The closer the collaboration, the better,” he says. “To hear the voice of the person who will inhabit a place and see it come alive in the built work is for me what architecture is all about.” While the house was still on paper, Phifer’s office made Armstrong miniature, to-scale models of both the interior walls and the couple’s collection of 20th-century abstract American paintings, so he could figure out the best way to display his art. “He gave me this incredible toy,” recalls Armstrong. “With most architects, it’s ‘Give me the program and I’ll give you the design.’ But Tom really worked with me. He’s not a screamer or a monster ego. But when he’s on the right track, he proceeds with great strength and brings you along.”

Phifer traces his evolution as an architect back to 1976, when at age 22 he took his first trip to Europe (and first flight anywhere). He stepped off the plane and his mind was promptly blown. “Oh my god, this is outrageous, this is incredible,” he recalls thinking. “I was kind of skipping along in life, and then I went to Europe and my world opened up. Seeing the work of James Stirling in London, Aalto in Finland, Gaudí in Spain, the ruins in Rome—it was just an outrageous experience.” Later, while managing projects in Paris, Basel, and Barcelona for Meier’s office, Phifer observed and internalized the priorities that shaped European design—–such as access to natural ventilation and daylighting—–but that were largely neglected in American architecture at the time. “In countries like the Netherlands it’s literally against the law to put people away from a window,” he recalls now. “It’s a human right to have contact with nature. In America that wasn’t really a concern. It’s just a completely different idea about how to make a building.”

In 1995, Phifer won the prestigious Rome Prize and took a leave of absence from Meier’s office to spend eight months in residence at the American Academy in Rome. Dedicating himself to “studying daylight,” he visited the Pantheon almost every day, rain or shine. “It’s really a metaphysical experience to go in and understand what that building does and how that building represents eternal light,” he raves. “It’s the magic of the oculus, like everyone says. It was built for the ages. You can’t talk about that kind of permanence very easily in the archi-tecture that we make today.” When Phifer returned from Rome he decided to start his own firm, working, at first, out of his living room. His firm is now in west SoHo, with a staff of 25 working collaboratively around a hundred-foot-long table.

His first major commission was the Taghkanic House in upstate New York’s Hudson Valley, a collaboration with his mentor, the legendary modernist landscape architect Dan Kiley, then age 87. “I’d never designed a house in the landscape before,” Phifer says. “We talked about how to embed architecture in the land, how to choreograph the arrival, how to allow buildings to deal with daylight and the land”—–guiding principles that continue to shape Phifer’s designs. The resulting house is a white-painted steel-and-glass box that rests on a hill; the rest of the structure is sunk into the earth, with a shaded glass face open to light and views. Since then, he’s designed airy and luminous houses and office buildings across the country, a United States courthouse in Salt Lake City, a student center for Rice University, and, most recently, the new North Carolina Museum of Art, an open-plan 120,000-square-foot museum where, as in the Fishers Island House, controlled daylighting illuminates the art and transparent walls reveal gardens and reflecting pools just outside. His firm also won an international competition to design a new streetlight for New York City, a taskhe found more difficult than conceiving a building. “It was so technically challenging,” he says of their design, which employs an energy-efficient LED bulb. “To my knowledge, it was one of the first designs for an LED streetlight, so we really had to push the technology.”

By all measures, Phifer’s firm is flourishing. But Phifer shrugs off any applause. “You have to practice for so, so, so many years before you even get a glimpse of the right way to do a building,” he demurs. “The more you see—–the Salk Institute and the Kimbell Museum that Lou Kahn did—–and the older you get, the more humble you get, because you begin to understand how those buildings are true masterpieces. Architecture is extremely difficult to make at that level.”

When I point out that not all architects get humbler with age, he raises his eyebrows and leans forward insistently. “Just one trip to the Kimbell and you feel like you’ll never do a building that’s even close to that. The building is completely timeless. The natural light is just breathless. It’s incredibly simple and powerful. When you’re a young architect, you look at it and you say, yeah, that’s beautiful. But when you get older you really begin to appreciate what a masterpiece is.

“More and more I’m thinking about life span,” he continues. “A lot of work we’re trying to make more permanent, making simpler and simpler forms. We’re into very quiet architecture.” Prodding him to think big, I ask him to name his dream project. “Another museum,” he says evenly. “Another house.”