Architectural Digest - December 2005

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The Professionals

Marc Appleton At Ease with a Diversity of Styles, Whether Traditional or Contemporary

By Nicholas von Hoffman


tocracy, Marc Appleton is of it. “My father was ARiS born F THERE IS AN AMERICAN

and raised in Boston,” he ex plains. “Appleton Farms in Ips— wich, Massachusetts, is the old est farm in direct—descendant hands in the country. ~AJe cel ebrated our 350-year reunion there about 25 years ago.” Although Appleton was brought up in California and Arjzona his father did not eas ily overcome the power of Boston’s ancestral magnetic field. The architect says that when his grandfather learned thatAppleton~ flither was con sidering leaving Boston and at tending a college in California called Stanford, “my grandfa—

ther looked at him and said, ‘I am not going to have you move to California only to become a cowboy. You are go ing to Harvard.’” After Har yard, Appleton’s father did move West, spending a long spell in California before ul timately becoming an Arizona ranchei~ bearing out his father’s


worst forebodings.

On his mother’s side, Marc Appleton also descends from a storied f~imily line, that of Pe ter Cooper, builder of the first steam locomotives in the Unit ed States, a major force behind the laying of the Atlantic tele graph cable as well as founder of The Cooper Union in 1859 and the Greenback Party pres idential candidate in 1876. continued on page 80


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“A building that’s al most banging you over the head to get noticed is not a building that’s going to endure,” says Marc Appleton (above).





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BeLow: On Martha’s Vineyard, he designed a Shingle Style house set away from the wa ter (see Architectu nil Digest,June 1994). —

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The Professionals

BELow: Recalling Cal ifornia’s early ranches, a Mann County house has board-and-batten siding and gables (AD, June 1999). RIGHT: For

a Santa Monica re model, the architect stepped the ceilings and put in corre sponding windows (AD, February 1995).



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Appleton uti lized old timbers and stone from around the country for a rustic compound in Tellu ride ~AD,June 1997).




continued fionz page 78

His parents, Appleton says, “both had a wonderful sense of adventure. My mother started the first Planned Parenthood clinic in Tucson at a time when the doctors were getting death threats.” They would later serve in the Peace Corps in Costa Rica. Thus it is that this descen dant of two great eastern families grew up in the West, though his thoughts about architecture and the practice of his chosen profession seem to have been shaped by the East. According to Appleton, family tradition was not what tugged him in the direction of Harvard. “I knew it was prob ably the best choice I could make of the colleges that I ap plied to,” he says. “But a place like Harvard at the time was





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pretty forbidding. Everyone there was valedictorian of their class or something. You had the feeling you were a very small fish in a big pond. I was afraid that I wasn’t going to cut it. I had a very high math score on my SAT and I’d done well in school. But my verbal score was appallingly bad. I think I was in the 400s or something,

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and there I was majoring in English literature. I had paint ed all through high school, and at Harvard I minored in paint ing and sculpture and photog raphy, and I had some teachers who were left over from Wal ter Gropius’s Bauhaus years there. That was my first se rious artistic and architectur al education.”



His insecurities about Har vard notwithstanding, he grad uated magna cum laude and went on to study architecture at that other bastion of New Englandism, Yale. Yale seemed to offer a refuge from the sci entific aestheticism dominating Harvard, where, he explains, “they taught art as if it were continued on page 82

The Professionals

The Professionals page co a science.’ He adds, i think one of the reasons I went to \i~le was that Charles Moore [then head of the architecture schoolj was a somewhat misbehaved and slightly irreverent modernist.” As Apple ton recalls, Moore “knew that moclernisni was not the answer. that it was frill of holes. 1—us answer in his own architecture was to have fin with it. He would bring tracli— tional elements into his work but almost in a cartoon sort of way, and Bob Venturi did the same thing. I felt that history was iOI1t!I!/ledfiOflI

coming hack almost as a one—line joke in a lot of postmodern architecture. It’s like Philip Johnson’s famous AT’&T building with the Chippendale top.” One cannot help but wonder if what Appleton saw as the ignoring of history or its abuse had an effect on him, gi~ en his family’s strong ties to the past. In am event, 192 saw Appleton going hack”.\ est, where, in San Diego, he w orkecl for two architects, one of whom super~ isedl the building of Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute. When business ~vent south, he found him self job—hunting in Los Angeles, where he ~ hired by Frank Gehr~, for whom he worked for “three great years.” In the end, he says, “I decided I as going to tr~ m~ hand at setting UI) m~ own practice.” At the time, he explains, “what von had to (10 as an architect in order to succeed was to develop an original approach and style, to design buildings that were going to get noticed. You really had to work hard at being original to make ~our way.” But he wouldn’t take that path to success. “1 love Frank Gehrv and what he does, hut for me it was too self—centered. It was too self— conscious. It seemed that everybody was trying to be a star,” he asserts. “To this cla~ I feel the same way—that most contem— porarv avant-garde architecture is fairk introverted, self—conscious and driven b~ fashion. I think that a lot of architects are very paranoid about getting jobs and that they are jealous when some other architect gets a good job. “Despite my apprenticeship and ni’. early training, I’ve found my own work over the years turning more and more to ward architectural possibilities that include traditional as well as contemporary styles.” He repudiates what he calls “architecture for the sake of getting itself noticed. Yàu’ve got a lot of architects these days who actu ally say that they’re going to shock iou,

Carefully avoiding cli chés, the architect in stead incorporated traditional elements in • —



creating a Greek-style house on the coast for a Southern California couple (AD,Jul~ 1996).

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thevre going to do something to jolt you, and to me it’s just not enough. “I look hack in history and admire ar chitects like \IcKim, Mead and \\liite and a lot of the turn—of—the—century architects who could cia almost anything. They could design in an~ style. It didn’t matter; s~le

wnatel~~ architects, as the~ did 400 years ago, w ark for the well—to—cia. Those who can afford architects are big col-porations and, by and large, people who have enough money to be able to care more about how their house is going to be designed than to order one our of the catalogue. I wish

“Most contemporar~ a~ ant garde architecture is self-conscious and driven by fashion.” was not the issue. It was a question ni sit ting clown in a particular place for a partic ular client with a particular program and creating a building that fit the landscape and the scene.” For Marc Appleton, the social observer, there is reason to feel pessii~~istic•~about architecture today. “People seem to be content with their crumnw condominiums or their tract houses. The architects who might really acid a kind of conscientious and more sophisticated level of accom plishment to the built environment are actually involved in affecting a very small percentage of it.” He believes this is not likely to change because, he notes, “unfor—

I could say as an architect that I had a more promising prognosis, but I don’t. There are times when I ask myself, \Vhat ~m I doing building another building in a countr’. that hardly needs it?” But for Marc Appleton, the practicing architect, there is enthusiasm, satisfaction and optimism: “I enjoy doing something different each time, and I enjoy the fact that all our clients are different and that they come to us with unique problems. Maybe there are other architects who are more consciously and ambitiously going out and trying to get certain types of proj ects, hut I just wait for the phone to ring. It has kept ringing, so I feel pretty luckv~” ~

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