On August 23, 2013 I interviewed St. Louis Architect Gene Mackey FAIA here in my studio. This is an edited version of that interview.
O. Perhaps you can start off talking about one of your projects that you feel particularly good about.
G. The public experience of the Washington University Medical Center - accomplished through landscape, signage, pedestrian lighting. We did a photographic survey of the entire medical center and it was embarrassing. All they had was you went out to a building and you went through a door. I said the building had to communicate with the clientele – the patients – you had to open things up at the pedestrian level and connect with people. They invested thirty million dollars in this public realm project and today it’s the framework of the medical center.
O. It sounds you were dealing much more with making a place than an object.
G. Exactly…and I enjoy that – I enjoy thinking strategically about what the problem is instead of objectively itself – so that’s a highlight for me - other projects include a ski lodge in Beaver Creek, Colorado on the side of a mountain which was very difficult – just like it is here with the grade. We created just a beautiful log home for that client. The compound up in Northern Michigan of five buildings. If Bernard Maybeck saw it today he would claim it as his own – there is so much charm and dignity to it – those are qualities that I really seek to achieve in the work that we do…At Washington University in 1995 we got a project to do student housing and we were told by the client, “I want 600 beds and one elevator” – that was the inspiration – that’s no inspiration. Through that project there were circumstances that all intersected and which caused the university to reconsider the entire residential life program. We were able to take this 40 acre site with about 2800 beds on it – buildings built in the 1950s and 1960s – we ended up doing a plan that was not about beds, but one that was about creating an academic community of scholars, a place. We got them to invest in the site and create an environment for the students and in the process we have torn down all the 1950s buildings and the 60s buildings…rebuilt the entire environment – I’m very proud of that project – and it still goes on today – we’re in Phase 9 as we speak in terms of building with over 3500 beds on that particular site. It’s all about a sense of community for those students – and the students love it- the parents love it and as a result of that project all these other universities started coming and seeing what we call the residential life experience on campus. Campuses all around the country started seeing the greater potential of their projects.
O. What size is your firm these days?
G. There are about 40 people. The firm was Mackey Mitchell Architects – Dan Mitchell has been with me for 30 years. There are now 8 partners and I’m a partner emeritus.
O. Are there larger firms in St. Louis?
G. HOK is headquartered in St. Louis. Cannon has an office there. A lot of the firms are a lot smaller than they used to be – we’re about the same size because we’ve been able to sustain ourselves through this very brutal period and I feel very blessed. Thinking about some other projects – we did a magnificent basketball arena for St. Louis University. We’ve done a lot of historic preservation – we’re redoing the old St. Louis Cathedral that was built in 1834. Country clubs, private houses, a project for the Alberici Company.
O. What American buildings have you’ve visited by other architects have impressed you?
G. I think Jefferson’s University in Virginia is pretty remarkable – an architectural solution to a program that is totally unique and I think it’s just brilliant – Falling Water your jaw drops- I don’t know what it would be like to live in it, but as a visitor and as architect appreciating its brilliance – it’s really something. This isn’t American, but I remember being in London and going to Kensington Palace and going up the staircase and saying “I don’t know who designed this, but this is really damn good” – I later learned it was Christopher Wren. I think a lot of modern architecture today is too interested in fashion and I think it’s not really good architecture – Wright was a giant – Wright sits up there over everything in America and continues to be an inspiration for everyone if they are willing to listen. I think all the fellows down in LA wouldn’t even be where they are without Wright’s influence – he made that all possible.
O. Sullivan’s building in St. Louis, The Wainwright, is that still standing?
G. Of course…it was going to become a parking lot and the State of Missouri stepped in and bought it – and it’s a state office building now but it’s just a magnificent building.
O. Are there other high rises around it?
G. Well, there used to be buildings around it of its era - indeed a wonderful context to appreciate it because you saw how brilliant it was in relation to its cousins, but they’re all gone and the buildings that are now around it don’t even hold a candle to it.
O. They’re undoubtedly high rises, of course.
G. Yes, of course. But there’s another object that he did – the Wainwright Tomb. When I gave my talk on Richardson and Sullivan and Wright I went to Chicago for a day and I photographed Sullivan Buildings and I went to Graceland Cemetery and saw the Ryerson Tomb and the Getty Tomb – Sullivan did three tombs- Wainwright, Getty, Ryerson. They are totally different – completely different in composition and execution and they’re really fine in their own way, but the Wainwright Tomb – that is the king of them all – it’s a marvelous, marvelous thing – it’s in St. Louis.
O. I’ll be sure to visit it when I’m there.
G. Either that or look it up – It’s beautiful. Give me a piece of paper – you can talk while I’m drawing.
O. Your dad had a great influence on you – you’ve talked about him before – what about in school- I assume that was a 5 year program and any particular professors, any particular students or other young architects you crossed paths with that opened your eyes to architecture?
G. The Washington University in the mid 1950s – a man named David Parson had a part-time job at HOK and started teaching and quickly became the Dean. He was from Minnesota and graduated from Harvard and MIT and brought in a tremendous faculty – he came a member of the city planning commission and he was outspoken…I mean the energy of the school from the 1950s to the middle of the 1960s was remarkable. We had a lot of older students ahead of us who were coming back from the Korean War so they were mature and they set a tone for the rest of us that was very helpful –Roger Montgomery was a professor, George Anselevicius, Dinos Michalides – all of these people later became deans at important schools of architecture so the energy of the school was very inspiring. My class of 14 – we started out with 80 and I think 9 of us ended up having practices – I think the spirit of the school was that we all wanted to become architects – I’m not sure that same feeling exists today with students in architecture.
O. That sounds familiar.
G. And you’d better love it – you know I think that’s the thing about architecture – there’s a passion to the practice that’s essential – and going back to the young people today you wonder where is that? I’m not saying everybody doesn’t have it but I don’t think there is the same passion …for many it’s just a job and I don’t think I felt I had a job ever – I just enjoyed this too much. It was never a job, it was a pleasure. You as a client had a need and I might have insights to help you and that binds you together in a certain way and we’re going to have a great journey together – and then you go out and do it.
O. Have any of your fellow classmates done anything notable that comes to mind?
G. There were 9 classmates at Washington that have practices and I went to Harvard and there were probably – we haven’t stayed that much in touch – probably 5 or 6 of them had their own practices – to tell you the truth – almost everybody I know from those years – they’re all either retired or they’re no longer with us and I’m one of the handful that’s still practicing. You said notable – at Harvard one of my classmates was Bob Siegel who later became partners with Charles Gwathmey in the firm Gwathmey/Siegel in New York. Ken Newman in Detroit on the South Greenfish Michigan was a really close friend at Harvard – he had a firm Newman/Smith - he’s no longer with us – and then Milo Thompson from Minneapolis had a firm and he’s pretty much retired now – They all could draw by the way!
O. Well, you had to in those days. What do you think was most valuable in your school – was it the other students, the professors, the curriculum – what really had the most impact on you do you think?
G. I think the professors for sure in terms of the kind of people they were – in terms of their commitment to our education and the way they challenged us – they really challenged us- sometimes aggressively – some of the guys couldn’t handle it – so professors for sure – some of my classmates – but for me it was solving a problem – the joy of solving a problem – being able to communicate it in drawings – what it was – the joy of that I think it’s within your soul – it’s within your heart – it’s being faced with a challenge and feeling it out – it’s like a game and that’s fun.
O. I know drawing is going to be part of our discussion.
G. Well, the one thing about architecture Obie, and you know this too, the sense of fellowship that you have between people of talent- I was on the jury for fellows – I got my fellowship in 1991 and I probably told you this story – I did a sketch – we had our ceremony at the Jefferson Memorial and the morning before I went out and did a little sketch looking across the lagoon. I sent a copy to a few of the people that were being awarded the fellowship and this one guy called me and he said, “Gene, this is absolutely so special. You’ve got to do this every year – if you do this you will endear yourself to everyone who receives it” and I’ve been doing it now for 23 years and I get the most wonderful notes from people – how much they appreciate it and what it means – some people have said this sketch means more to them than the certificate – and so that’s been fun to share my talent – to give back to the college.
O. Well, that’s fantastic. There really is a lot of value and personal satisfaction in being able to give like that. And it’s nice to get feedback like that. I do have a question about the Arch.
G. The Gateway Arch in St. Louis is one of the great monuments of the world. It’s hard to believe it was designed in 1947. When I say that to people they’re flabbergasted because it’s so modern, so contemporary – I think it will always be modern and contemporary. It’s now undergoing transformation on the ground. They had a competition and selected somebody, but it’s just moving deck chairs as far as I’m concerned. As long as they don’t screw around with the arch everything will be fine; it’s a powerful symbol. Eero Saarinen – the competition was for a programmatic system on the ground and he said, “No, that’s not the problem – the problem really is an inspirational moment” and created this amazing object. The jury – when they deliberated and made their report saw that it came from Donald Hills and they sent a telegram to Eliel, who also had competed announcing that Eliel had won the completion.
G. Three days later they discovered their error and sent a second telegram – Eero Saarinen clearly won the competition in the first stage. It was a two stage competition – the jury in its report admired the design, but contended that it probably could never be built and the jury included Richard Neutra, by the way, and George Howe. It was just so magnificent and so simple and so elegant – they assumed there would be something sticking out…but Saarinen solved the problem. Saarinen didn’t get to see it built – it was built in 1964 and he had already passed away – it’s a timeless monument to the opening up of the west. A remarkable act is my opinion. A footnote here, I’ll tell the story quickly – my father had been a competitor and his solution was an arch in the form of a bridge over the river – after the competition a number of years went by – the competition was held in 1947-1948. It wasn’t appropriated until the late 1960s –at that time Senator Stuart Symington came back to the civic leaders and asked if they really wanted this to be appropriated – and the downtown businesses were not really interested in adding this memorial because the land had been cleared and it was a free parking lot and all the downtown businessmen thought that was just great- My father, Gene Mackey Jr. was president of the St. Louis Chapter that year and he committed the energy and focus of the chapter to lobby for this appropriation. He worked with Eero, going to committee meetings in Washington and convinced the mayor that this was an important project to be achieved and the St. Louis Chapter with my father’s leadership was a very important factor at that moment to realize the appropriation and move forward with the project. It’s the symbol of our city, it’s a symbol of the opening of the west, and everyone that goes to see it is inspired by it – even to just go up and touch it is a powerful experience.
O. Well, thank you very much.