Architectural Record: You’ve advised a lot of corporations on design issues. How has corporate architecture changed during your time?
Bill Lacy: It’s changed dramatically. Way back when, we were voices in the wilderness. Now a lot of corporate leaders understand that good architecture can give them a competitive edge. There’s a keener interest in architecture today.
But wasn’t the immediate post–WorldWar II era a golden age for corporate patronage, with companies like IBM, General Motors, and John Deere commissioning wonderful architecture? And aren’t corporations today more concerned about cutting costs than creating inspired buildings?
Back in the 1950s, it was a rather short list of architects that got the great commissions. My friend Charles Eames and a couple of other figures like Eero Saarinen and Gordon Bunshaft basically were the list. Today, there’s a proliferation of architects considered for important jobs. And I don’t buy the argument that corporations today are afraid of spending money on good architecture. It never hurts to go with the best—in any field.
You also advised the State Department on its embassy-building program.
It’s sad what’s happened there. We shouldn’t make our embassies look like prisons. And the same is true for the White House. By putting bollards all around it, we’ve just about ruined its sense of democracy. It hurts both its purpose and its architecture.
You’re really unusual. I don’t know anybody who has had as broad a range of experiences as you.
I wandered into much of it.
How did you end up trying so many wonderful things, and what took you in these directions?
I don’t think you choose. At least, I didn’t choose very much. It’s like it all happened to me. My father was a builder, a contractor, and we lived in Broken Bow, Oklahoma, a little town of about 2,600 people with a Last Picture Show kind of Main Street. I always wanted to play basketball more than anything else, so I went to Oklahoma State, where the great Henry Iba was coach. I made the cut for the freshman squad but realized that I couldn’t play basketball and still perform for the dean of the school of architecture. We had the best of both the Beaux-Arts and the Bauhaus at the school, with two Beaux-Arts teachers who didn’t hesitate to tear into our drawings and an IIT—or Harvard—trained professor who would lead us cerebrally to a solution that was our own.
To pay for my college education, I did ROTC and then had to go into the army. When they said Europe, rather than Korea, I did cartwheels. Because I had studied French and Italian, the army wisely chose to send me to Germany. When I came back, I taught at Oklahoma State and got my master’s and won the LeBrun Traveling Grant in a design competition for a library and park. I got the handsome sum of $5,000 to travel for six months and make the grand tour: Provence, Italy, Scandinavia.
I didn’t know what to do next and ended up with Bill Caudill [a founder of Caudill Rowlett Scott] in Houston. Then Bill was offered the job of dean at Rice, and he said, “Why don’t you come over with me and be the associate dean, and you could teach, too.” He was very persuasive.
Maybe that’s what happened: I ran into a lot of people who were really good salespeople, and I wasn’t very resistant.
I think Rice is where my multicareer began. We got lots of new programs going: We sent students to offices, which was a new direction at the time; we started summer programs; and we got grants for research and brought in top students from various schools. We designed community psychiatric centers and community colleges, also new at the time. One year, we designed bomb shelters to make them lovable and livable. And I started a firm with Anderson Todd, a professor type, and Gerald Tackett, a building technology wiz.
Then I was recruited by Tennessee. I went there and started an architecture school and became the founding dean.
This is the early ’70s?
No, it was ’65 through ’69, during the Vietnam War. There was a lot of turmoil on campuses. But my classes had good morale; the kids felt they were moving in the right direction and that we were all in something together. We took on the old steam plant and converted it into the architecture school, and I got Herman Miller and Knoll to furnish it. We became guinea pigs for the new open-office landscaping.
In Knoxville, I formed Design Collective. There were five of us: two architects, a graphic designer, an industrial designer, and an engineer. I thought that’s where practice might go, toward incorporating different disciplines. We worked with Victor Gruen on a downtown plan. We did a department store in town, put on a big show called Stores of the ’70s predicting all these things that didn’t happen.
When I thought I’d finished what I wanted to do in Tennessee, I went to Dallas and worked with Omniplan for a year. They did on a big scale what I had done on a small scale in Tennessee.
Very soon, Nancy Hanks, chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, came to Dallas and persuaded me that I belonged in Washington, D.C. She told me I’d have lots of money to give away to good causes and good people. And so, in 1971, I went to Washington and had a fantastic six years as director of the NEA’s architecture and environmental arts program—during the most interesting of times, Nixon and Watergate.
Before this, NEA didn’t have money for the arts, did it?
It did, but the Endowment didn’t really take off until Nancy arrived in 1969. Under her leadership, our budget doubled every year until it was up to $200 or $300 million; there was a real rebirth, a burgeoning of the arts in the U.S. It’s a shame that it ran into politics.
But it was fantastic for me because the Council for the Arts [NEA’s board of directors] had on it Duke Ellington, James Earl Jones, Helen Hayes, Marian Anderson, Charles Eames, Lawrence Halperin, O’Neill Ford, Beverly Sills, Mikhail Baryshnikov. It had major figures in every field—Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston. When they went to Congress, we could have asked for a billion dollars and gotten it. Nancy was one of the shrewdest operators ever.
We saved the old Post Office Building [in Washington], and then we saved the Pension Building, now the National Building Museum. And we did this in any way we could. We were wheeling and dealing.
So, anyway, politics, politics. One day, Senator Howard Baker said to me, “You know, we’re doing the Dirkson Senate Office Building. It’s got to be right, because I feel a special obligation to my father-in-law, Everett Dirkson [who had been a powerful senator from Illinois]. We’ve got designs, but I don’t know anything about architecture.” I said, “You have hearings on everything else, you might as well have one on the Dirkson’s preliminary design.” So we had a hearing and people testified. It was a first for design.
But also we had this program on federal design. Now, I don’t like to pat myself on the back unnecessarily—too hard—but I think that the improvement in federal design of all sorts, and even the GSA Design Excellence Program, is attributable to that time. I brought all sorts of artists to Washington, including Massimo Vignelli to redesign the Congressional Record. Anyway, I left Washington. Nancy got sick and died of cancer.
The NEA has gone through some difficult years since then, especially after the controversy over funding for the Robert Mapplethorpe show [in 1989].
Yes. They’re afraid of the arts now.
Whom do you mean by “they”?
The American public and their leaders.
Wherever you’ve been, you’ve been trying new things, innovating, taking risks. Is that the way you see yourself?
I just think of things that need doing and do them. At Cooper, I decided they needed higher visibility. So I started the American Jazz Orchestra before Lincoln Center jumped on it. I got the poet W.S. Mervin to come to Cooper, and hired the country’s first woman dean of engineering.
How many architects have been university presidents?
Thomas Jefferson is the only one I can think of.
Well, not a bad role model!
Then one day the White House called. They were beginning work on the President’s library and wanted advice. Clinton and I had a lot of “good old boy” stories because Broken Bow and Hope are a lot the same. The Monica Lewinsky scandal was all over the news at the time. When I got the call from the White House inviting me to lunch, I asked who else would be there and was told, “Just the President’s lawyers.” So I replied, “Should I bring mine?” I gave the President a crash course in architecture and a few books. He’s a quick study.
Is that how your consulting career began?
No, it started when I was at Cooper. I teamed with Ada Louise Huxtable and served on a jury for the San Francisco library. That produced a little teeny tiny item in the Wall Street Journal headlined, “Architects Discover Consulting.” We became a team, going on juries together. She had left The New York Times, and her husband had just died.
Consulting was a natural evolution for me. When I was a young dean at the University of Tennessee, I became part of a review board that included the state architect, the campus architect, and myself. When I went to the Endowment, I was looking at and selecting projects to fund. Beginning in the early ’80s, I was also one of a three-person State Department jury that selected architects for embassies all over the world. By the time I was in New York, people were coming to me for advice on competitions or their search for an architect. I met with Bill Paley [president of CBS] and helped him select an architect for the Museum of Television and Radio [the Philip Johnson–designed project that Paley helped fund.] Then Jacob [Lord Rothschild] asked me to run the competition for the Israeli Supreme Court. So, I kind of eased into it.
I see. It sort of grew.
Yeah. We didn’t sit down one day and say, architecture needs a consulting process, but it became like an executive search company that makes sure a client gets an architect that’s right for the job and has the credentials checked out.
And it grew as I ran the Pritzker jury. If you review as many applications and see as many buildings and architects as I did, you accumulate a lot of knowledge. You learn to sense if a particular architect would be a good fit for any number of reasons.
What project stands out from your consulting work?
The Getty. I felt good that they wanted me to do the Villa as well as Meier’s museum. When I was president of the American Academy in Rome, I got a call from the Getty’s Nancy Englander, whom I’d known at the Endowment. She asked for advice on selecting a site. So I called Paul Friedberg [the landscape architect], and we went to L.A. and gave the pros and cons of three different sites.
What other projects stick out in your mind?
The U.S. Courthouse in Boston [designed by Henry N. Cobb, FAIA, of Pei Cobb Freed], which Judge Stephen Breyer [now U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice] helped shape. We took the ball from the GSA and ran with it. At an early meeting with the GSA, someone pointed to me and asked Breyer, “What’s he doing here?” Breyer said, “He’s my clerk.”
There was also the West Kowloon cultural center, a massive cultural hub in Hong Kong. I served as professional adviser for an international design competition for the site. Norman [Lord Foster] won it with a huge shed roof. It was like Bucky Fuller’s dome over New York, except Norman’s was a little more free form. [The project ran into political problems and has not moved forward.]
Working for the Kimbell on its current expansion, did you have any trepidation dealing with such an iconic building?
No, I didn’t. It’s interesting how it happened. I suggested my usual format for getting the right architect. But they were really set on having Renzo [Piano]. And I thought and thought but couldn’t think of anyone better. Not just because Renzo’s at a plateau in his career, but I think that he has the sensitivity and ability to sublimate his ego and pay homage to Lou and the existing Kimbell. And he has the personality to get along with the clients. The Kimbell is going to keep me gainfully occupied for years.
I know you have some reservations about competitions.
I have run many competitions, and when I was at the Endowment, I promoted competitions to encourage younger architects. However, the jury or selection committee selects a design, but they get an architect. Too many times the design changes and they still have the architect. The committee might prefer to go look at work and have a show of credentials. I think that you cannot rely on imagery to replace the actual experience. It’s like going to the theater. You have to be there.
I’m consulting for Novartis now. When I first met with the C.E.O., I told him I don’t believe in competitions except for special projects, like monuments and memorials. He surprised me by agreeing, because, he said, he lost control when he brought in a jury. He couldn’t overrule them. He told me to give him three names, and he’d visit each one. We now have Gehry, Chipperfield, Moneo, Siza and Suto de Moro, Sejima, and others working for Novartis in Basel. And we’re doing a master plan for a U.S. headquarters.
From your experience as a consultant, do you have advice for architects seeking a commission?
Interviews are the make-or-break thing. You have to understand what the client wants. Forget about everything but the client’s project. Clients don’t take the same keen interest in what you’ve done as in what you’re going to do for them. I’ve seen architects fail by being arrogant. The top architects are generally excited about the possibilities of what a project can be and how they can do it. It’s that intensity about the client’s project that’s more important than almost anything else.
Is there a thread that unites all parts of your varied career?
One of the major things I hoped to do at Tennessee, the American Academy, Cooper, and Purchase was to improve morale and image. Cooper had gone to sleep. It was in the doldrums. The Academy—when I was there—had to deal with people asking, “Why Rome?” They thought it was passé, not interesting. So I did the first New York exhibition of fellows’ art since 1898. I had a first-ever Academy concert. I tried to enliven the place and modernize its programs. I changed the direction by bringing Robert Motherwell onto the board. At Purchase, I brought in Pentagram. At these institutions, I wanted to make people feel proud again of the place. I thought if you told the truth about the place, it would be a big plus.
What qualities do you think you have that qualified you for one uber-architecture position after another?
Part of it was having ideas, the vision thing. I had the benefit of lots of different kinds of experience, from being in the military and handling a lot of men in Germany, going to Rice and teaching, starting several firms and getting to know a great many, many people along the way. Also, I have the ability to meet people and put them at ease, and I have a sense of humor.