For architects on the edge, early success can be a sword that cuts both ways.

Every aspiring architect dreams of a breakthrough project that will establish his or her name soon enough to buy time and offset the geological pace of a creative process often calculated in decades rather than years.

This house and studio on Long Island for his parents set Charles Gwathmey on the path to success
Condominium 1 at Sea Ranch was a highlight in Charles Moore’s career
Photo © Norman Mcgrath/Esto (top); Wayne Andrews/Esto (above)
This house and studio on Long Island for his parents set Charles Gwathmey on the path to success (top). Condominium 1 at Sea Ranch was a highlight in Charles Moore’s career (above).

But as the career tangents of even the most admired architects demonstrate, initial acclaim doesn’t come with a lifetime guarantee. When Charles Gwathmey died this summer at 71 — scandalously soon for anyone these days, architect or not — more than one observer noted that nothing he did surpassed his brilliant debut: the widely praised Long Island house and artist’s studio he designed for his parents more than four decades ago.

Completed in 1966, when Gwathmey was just 28, this superb ensemble — a lively composition of geometric forms that suggested a new vocabulary for the East Coast beach house — won instant raves. It gave Gwathmey’s reputation the kick start that in turn increased the influence of the New York Five, of which he was the youngest member, and secured him a thriving practice before he turned 40. But I wouldn’t hazard a guess as to why that marked the high point of his career.

Not long ago, I ran into an architect I highly respect but hadn’t seen for ages: Donlyn Lyndon, still best known as a principal in the quintessentially 1960s office of Moore, Lyndon, Turnbull and Whitaker (MLTW) in California. They designed the epoch-making Sea Ranch Condominium 1 (1963—65) in Sonoma County, California, a watershed in the emergence of architecture based on vernacular traditions to better connect with the local environment (aided immeasurably by the site planning of landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, who died in October at 93).

I told Lyndon, who is two years older than Gwathmey, that the similarly premature deaths of his former colleagues Charles Moore and William Turnbull have made Lyndon and the fourth member of their quartet, Richard Whitaker, seem like the two surviving Beatles — such was MLTW’s rock-star status when I started writing about architecture 35 years ago.

But rather than lapsing into nostalgia, Lyndon was clear-eyed about their place in history. As he told me, “Nothing any of us later did separately ever came close to the condominium.” At the time of its completion, he was 29 and Moore was 40. When MLTW disbanded, Lyndon explained, a crucial factor vanished with it: the partners’ forthright critiques of each others’ contributions, which brought out the best in each of them at Sea Ranch.

The ensuing absence of that collegial give-and-take affected Moore’s subsequent work most visibly. This extravagantly gifted designer, author, educator, and historian was also compulsively peripatetic and incapable of settling down in one location, an odd trait for someone who wrote so evocatively about the spirit of place.

As the dawning Jet Age made travel easier and the nascent celebrity culture spawned the architectural star system, Moore shuttled between separate professional practices (more complicated than corporate branch offices) and moved from one architecture-school deanship to the next, rarely touching down long enough to maximize his talents anywhere. The best designs of Moore and Gwathmey, as well as the early work of Edward Larrabee Barnes and Arthur Erickson, all responded quite specifically to natural settings and intimate scale that got lost in the shuffle once those men took to long-distance practice.

Above all, none of Moore’s ever-younger collaborators challenged him as frankly and constructively as his MLTW partners had. Architects at the start of their careers are often unconstrained by conventions that inhibit their elders. Though Moore liked to recruit his brightest students for his various firms, and those admiring neophytes learned much from him, their intergenerational dynamic was unbalanced, in contrast to MLTW’s interplay of equals.

The iffy economics of a practice based on small-scale, high-style projects also had much to do with Moore’s multiple affiliations and constant peregrinations. But the far-flung road show, now a professional commonplace, took a terrible toll on him physically and psychically.

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