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Graham Gund's Architecture; Fantasies with addresses

It's a proper, portly Boston police station, and it's been squatting on its stout brownstone haunches since 1886. Who would suspect that inside lurks a gleaming modern art museum?

A bare wood staircase angles upward amid stark white walls. Galleries -- full of Jackson Pollock's splatters this month -- hang off its spiral at unexpected angles, so that as you climb the stairs, you don't so much arrive at a gallery as get alluring glimpses of it out of the corner of your eye.

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If it's a surprise to step into this spanking-modern, airy interior through the frowning brown facade of Police Station 13, then perhaps you haven't come upon the enchanted "garden" in the lobby of the former Charles C. Perkins School in Boston, or caught a glimpse of the cat on the parapet of a Venetian palazzo in a trompe l'oeil painting on the wall of the 15-story-high lobby of the brand-new ziggurat-shaped Hyatt Regency Hotel in Cambridge.

All these delights are the work of Graham Gund, a Cambridge architect. You may call them playful, but to him they are the undying part of his oeuvre.m Where some architects throw up huge granite outcroppings for us to remember them by, Graham Gund says, "I think I'd like people to appreciate the buildings, and enjoy themselves. That's the satisfaction. I don't think it's the monumental [ effect]. I'm really not interested."

Similarly, though Gund himself is a large man, over six feet tall and heavyset, he doesn't throw his weight around, or even displace many people in a room. When his School-house condominiums had their opening, he stood in the doorway ushering in his chic and well-heeled guests, listening seriously to their little shrieks of delight, and quietly telling them where to put their coats and to look around at the $60,000 to $165,000 one-to three-bedroom condos.

"This is David Rockefeller," he said conversationally to me, so gently that I forgot to balk and just shook hands with this man Gund designed a house for, who is, just by the way, the son of the chairman of the Chase Manhattan Bank and the owner of the Real Paper, a Boston weekly.

Gund himself comes from a banking family. Gund Hall, which houses the Graduate School of Design at Harvard, is named for his father, who paid for it. He attended the GSD, but before the hall was there. He doesn't talk about his family's wealth, just chuckling and admitting it would have been a little too much to study in a hall of the same name. Friends and co-workers, however, have described him as a "philanthropist from a great family," and one of the foremost collectors of contemporary art. Good patrician soul that he is, he is on the board of directors of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. He also paints.

And he really just wants people to have a good time in his buildings.

"That's enough," Gund says. "I think architecture can be very supportive of one's psyche. That's the way it should be. It shouldn't dominate but it should support."

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And in conversation, you can see that the effect of the buildings comes from the attitude of their architect. He fixes you in an unblinking gaze while you ask questions, almost jumping when it's his turn to talk. It's not so much that he's keeping an eye on you, or staring, but you feel, as he takes in every question with those wide-open green eyes and that gentle face, that he's being almost fiercely deferential. When he answers, he keeps looking at you as if to make sure you're not getting confused. His voice is quiet, but he doesn't mince words. You find yourself staring back into his eyes, lowering your voice. He doesn't dominate, he supports.

And the lobby of the School-house condominiums, for one example, doesn't just support you, it entertains you. You wait to be buzzed in in front of a grass-green trellis grid on the vestibule windows, eyeing a jumble of levels and stairways within.Step into the lobby and look up, and there are several umbrella-shaped panels, partially separating the stairways from each other, but mostly, you feel, hovering gently overhead like shady elms. You walk upstairs through a cutout in the same play-tree shape. At the back of the lobby are daffodil-colored elevator doors, and at the top a ribbon of blue about three feet wide undulates and streams from a high window, with a light pouring down it. Besides that, there are "vines" for banisters -- pipes that follow the zigzag of the steps, painted green.

All this happens in a very small space, and as you walk up or down, the shapes shift in your vision. You could be enjoying a most stimulating playground provided by very forward- looking and indulgent parents for design-sensitive kindergartners. It's abstract, but in a childlike way.

In this sense, it's a typical Gund project. For all the modernity, at least on the inside, his buildings have a personable atmosphere. Even though the inside can be totally different from the outside, it's always a pleasant surprise, never a shock. For all their clean lines and odd angles, usually brilliantly lit by the sun pouring through windows in unexpected places or blazed by spotlights on tracks, his rooms are cozy.

Playful as the School-house lobby is, it also reflects Gund's thoughts on Victorian architecture, and, strangely enough, his sense of classicism. "I was interested in the concept of making a special place," he says. "In a lot of older buildings, Victorian buildings in the Back Bay [of Boston] and other places, you go in and get a sense of exuberance from the Victorian detail . . . and a sort of heightened interest in oneself in relation to the building.The building was done in 1891 and it has a special quality about it. A sort of grandness, with the pilasters [some of which poke through the clean angular spaces of the condos, injecting a little Victorian formality in a jolly way, like a visit from a doting uncle who wears a monocle] and the buildup towards the center. And to just walk in the door and go straight through the lobby, sort of on a straight run to the elevator, wouldn't be in keeping with the outside of the building."

So he has you wend your way through his play forest of shapes and cutouts, holding onto a green vine, and step into a daffodil to go up to the third floor.

Though the approach hardly seems Victorian, and in fact, contrasts with the pale brick front which still bears the legend

"Charles C. Perkins School A.D. MDCCCXI" and sports the traditional flagpole, he emphasizes the similarities.

"I don't think of it as modern, because I think that there's something good in all periods of architecture, and I think there's a consistent sort of strain of quality that runs through all the periods in our past. It's trying to capture some of that classical attitude."

Likewise, he doesn't see it as any kind of design affront that the inside of Boston Police Station 13 is the Institute of Contemporary Art, thoroughly modern and stripped down to bare wood and white walls. When he was working on that building, he says, "a lot of people . . . thought it was somewhat odd that a place that was showing contemporary art, that was involved with what was the new and latest in art, should be in an old building. I always thought it was very appropriate that you'd walk in the door and you'd see something different."

This attitude flies in the face of the Bauhaus school of thought, dating from the 1920s but inspiring much of modern architecture. The Bauhaus dictates, explains Gund, that "a building should reflect on the outside what its function is on the inside." As far as Gund can see, architecture today is "growing out of" this way of thinking, and he feels it's about time.

"There's too much functionalism, to the point that a lot of our buildings leave people cold," he says, especially when this extends to emphasis on a stripped-down look that exposes the materials the buildings are made of -- a "func- tional" look, which, he says, has little to say to someone who doesn't know anything about engineering and besides, can cost more than a more decorated look, requiring "all sorts of gymnastics" to show the beams and cinder blocks.

"Architects started confusing building materials with something people would respond to," he says. "In other words, the purity of the I-beam, the steel I-beam going through a space, does have a certain engineering purity, but it's not something that people can really grab hold of in their minds, because an I-beam really doesn't mean anything to them." The I-beam does have meaning, he said, "when you take it and make it kind of light and delicate. . . . It's not the function that's important, it's really the perception."

All this attention to perception, though a departure from current thought, corresponds to 19th-century architecture, so it's a perfect way to approach something like an 1866 police station that aspire to be a contemporary art museum. While Gund has a great appreciation for the principles on which the police station was built, that didn't hold him back a particle when he gutted the inside and flung up that definitely 1970s stairway.

"I think it adds to the complexity and interest of the city to add to the duality. It's just sort of unexpected. It's not as predictable as it might have been in the old days," he says. And by "old days," he means the good old ' 50s and '60s, when functionalism ruled supreme and everything was clear and apparent. From that era, he says, "you have office buildings that are much thinner skinned. You see a lot of buildings whose skin is maybe this thick [he indicates a mere four inches with a capable hand]. . . . You know what's behind it. It's all very clear." Not, to his mind, much of a virtue. The old days of the 19th century, however, are a different thing altogether.

"With buildings like the School-house, what gives them a lot of charm is the fact that they [the architects] applied a lot of decoration to the outside, and they had an idea of exactly how the proportions should look. It was literally nonfunctional in a sense that there's granite up to a certain point to give a feeling of a base, and then there are columns which don't hold up any more weight than any other part of the building, but it gives a visual sense of the corners, the strength of the corners."

Likewise, Gund's buildings don't disclose their function to any and every onlooker. If they demonstrate anything, it's what he calls the context -- how the building fits in with the desires of the people he buids for, how it looks on the street with the other buildings, and how the neighbors feel about it.

He got his first taste of the context of a neighborhood when plans were unveiled for his stunning pyramidal Hyatt Regency Hotel in Cambridge. The shore of the Charles River had been rezoned to require low buildings that would not block the river from Cambridgeport residents. The Hyatt was a towering wall, 15 stories at its highest point. The rezoning stopped just short of the hotel site. Cambridgeport residents complained they hadn't been consulted about the 3 1/2- acre development. About twenty of them stormed the press conference atop the old warehouse the hotel replaced, led by Cambridge City Councilor Saundra Graham. There were even suggestions of conflict of interest, since one of mr. Gund's associates also served on the Cambridge Planning Board. But for residents, the issue was jobs. Saundra Graham, now a friend of Gund, remembers their first meeting at the press conference.

"We went at it for along time." she says grimly.

The residents wanted jobs or no hotel. The business community, Saundra Graham recalls, wanted the hotel to stay. A compromise was found. Gund promised to work with the community on providing jobs for Cambridgeport residents. The hotel went up, the community got the jobs, and it re mains, one observer notes, the most integrated Hyatt Regency in the country, in employees and also in users. The hotel is used mostly by businessmen on expense accounts, but community members will save up and hold their special festivities there, he notes.

"Graham had never worked with the community before," Saundra Graham recalls."I think he was shocked that the community could be so powerful, and that we meant good by it."

Gund promised to allocate $11,000 to set up an employment program to hire community members for hotel work. Saundra Graham was impressed.

"He stood on his commitment and followed through. . . . Once he knows an issue and understand it," she says, "he's good to work with." By now, they are mutual admirers.

"She's very straightforward. It's nice. She's very clear about what's on her mind," he says. He is working on restoration and adaptation of an 1814 Bulfinch courthouse in East Cambridge, with her blessing.

"It's her baby," he says. The courthouse will be the centerpiece of a Cambridge riverfront development project (around a bend in the Charles from the Hyatt, and in a different neighborhood) and will have performing spaces indoors outdoors for the Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center, as well as offices for lawyers. The Arts Center will generate revenue to help support its programs. David Kronberg, executive director of the center, says there will probably be some fear of "gentrification" in this low-to-middle-income, family-oriented neighborhood as well as some "Who is tis guy Graham Gund?" sentiment.

"There are going to be some stiff moments" at upcoming planning meetings, David Kronberg says. "It's not going to be easy. But he'll succeed," even though he characterizes Gund as a "shy, diffident guy."

The popular notion is that arthitects are arrogant beings who put up buildings and then expect people to deal with them, I point out to Gund.

"Some are," he says, but was too polite to mention who. When I ask him if it was the skirmishes with Cambridgeport that made him so responsive, he says rather quietly, "I'm pretty sensitive anyway. . . . I don't think we need someone on our backs to make us honest or just do things. Now, I think, with a reputation for having done certain things and worked well with communities, it's easier. There's a certain amount of trust."

It can be very touchy putting in condominiums where there were none, or in the case of the Hyatt, a brand new hotel where once there was only a warehouse. Gund takes all the protests of the community seriously and look carefully at the surrounding buildings (he think it's just as arrogant to put a poured concrete building on a street of brick houses as it is to block people's view of the river or gentrify a neighborhood that doesn't want to be gentrified). Within these constraints and the limits of old-fashioned buildings not intended for anything but institutional use, or among walls he devises himself, a whimsical expression flourishes.

"We like very much to do buildings that bring people together. I particularly like buildings that sort of galvanize people."

To appreciate them, he says, he wants people to move through his buildings. He has designed perhaps the only cozy 12-story Hyatt Regency lobby in the country by making it impossible to see the whole thing at once, which might be a dehumanizing experience."The mural you don't see from the lobby floor, which was the way it was intended. You only see it as you move vertically up in the space. And there are other things you don't see unless you move horizontally, so it's creating a lot of experiences . . . You wank around, and as you walk it changes and you see different things."

His insistence on keeping to the human scale was lauded by Jim Morgan, AIA, writing in Interiors magazine. "Human scale is to designers more than a nice feeling arrived at serendipitously. It requires constant review of dimensions, material choices and details as the design develops. . . . Even the great window facing east has been reinforced by tetrahedral pipe trusses designed not just for wind loads but to dramatize with arm-sized members the task of resisting the Charles River blasts."

You may see trees overhead, you may catch sight of a cat, or you may be compelled to race up a lofty stairway into some half-hidden gallery. No matter which building you're in, you get the feeling that someone has left you an adventure.

Of his houses and buildings, he says, "I'd like to live in 'em all. I think part of being an arthitect is getting involved in the whole fantasy of recreating your own existence through environmental means. Projecting yourself into someone else's life, and fantasizing about it. How people are going to use something. How they're going to live in a space."

Most of all, he accommodates his people, and his spaces accommodate their lives. He isn't too explicit, in his fantasy libbies and stairways, because he doesn't want people to be bored. The tree shapes in the condo lobby wee painted green, until he saw them and had them painted beige. "If the tree is green, suddenly it's too real and it's too literal and it loses a poetic quality," he says. "Wanted to give people the opportunity to project themselves. . . ."

He often leaves out the word "I." In his buildings, too, he fantasizes, project himself, and then takes a little out. Maybe the green of the tree, maybe the portrait of him that the mural painter put in. It's almost as if he's stepping aside to let the people in. "It's giving people some space to project. To discover certain things."

The spaces are ingenious. Encouraging. People do appreciate them, and he is getting a name for himself. He received an Honor Award for Excellence and Design from the American Institute of Arthitects for the Institute of Contemporary Art. The Architectural REcord cited one of his houses on the Massacusetts coast as one of its 20 Record Houses of 1979, Commenting, "The house by Graham Gund enchants by its use of familiar architectural elements in entirely personal and unexpected ways. "If, for some strange reason, a hundred years from now Graham Gund's name is forgotten, people will no doubt still feel galvanized, protected and delighted in his buildings. Whether or not they remember whose design it is, they will be inhabiting his fantasies.

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