Episode 75

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05/05/2021 | Episode 75 | 45:41

Architect Yann Weymouth

Because he worked closely with the legendary I.M. Pei, and was Chief of Design on Pei's Grand Louvre Project in Paris, Yann Weymouth in the upper echelon of American architects. He was also Pei's associate on the East Wing of Washington's National Gallery of Art. There are many other famous creations in his portfolio. But Weymouth lives in St. Petersburg, and we're fortunate to see his brilliant, creative work all around us - from the Hazel Hough Wing in the Museum of Fine Arts to the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art, and - perhaps most notable of all - the world-renowned Salvador Dali Museum.

Key Insights

  • The Louvre Project took seven years, and at first the glass pyramid design was not popular with the French people: “We don’t want the Louvre to be Disneyfied."
  • One key to good work, Weymouth says, is to "treat every project as a special project. I don’t care if it’s a tiny house or factory edition."
  • Achitects are getting better at less manual intensive ways of building, he explains. "Which means that people who are building buildings are more highly paid, better trained. And it takes fewer people to put things together."
  • Weymouth graduated from Harvard University in 1963, and the MIT School of Architecture three years later.
  • There's a waterfall at one end of the arroyo (canyon) that comprises the James Museum's lobby, and it's there for a reason: "What creates a ravine, what created the Grand Canyon? It’s water."
  • I.M. Pei's comment on 'The Da Vinci Code,' parts of which were filmed at the Louvre: “You know, the inverted pyramid never looked so clean.”
  • Architects can make a difference when it comes to climate change. "Because in the energy picture of the United States, buildings consume more than transportation and more than industry, either when you’re building them or when you’re operating them. So, we have a handle on making our buildings far more efficient."

All the young people loved the idea of the glass pyramid and fixing the Louvre. But people I respected – on the other side of the spectrum – were terrified."

Evolution designs things. And you look at how the growth of a leaf or you look at the form of an insect or the form of a butterfly wing or the form of a fish, they are all very beautiful. How are they beautiful? They’re all functional."

 

 

Joining me today on SPx is Architect Yann Weymouth. Welcome sir.

Thank you very much, Joe.

Don’t get too heavy into the ‘Tell us about yourself’ biography stuff, but simply to potentially lift the esteem of this show more than anything, I want to run through your incredible list of accomplishments very quickly as an architect. Harvard and MIT as a student, National Gallery, The Louvre, MFA, the Dali, The James Museum, Ringling, any other favorites that I’m missing?

Frost Art Museum and FIU in Miami and the Frost School of Music at UM in Miami.

I should say perhaps, your biggest accomplishment arguably is a fantastic multi-decade partnership with your wife Susana, the one who plays a big role in your life.

That is a big deal. So, thank you.

Congratulations. I’d like to start with your family, because you have a family that – for whatever reason – is rich in accomplishments. It’s funny that it could be happenstance, it could be just luck, but it seems like certain families just largest levels of accomplishment across the board. And yours is one of those, and in very different ways. I know you moved a lot growing up. Talk a little bit about expectations and just a general level of excellence that existed around you and your childhood.

Well, my mother was French. She met my dad just prior to the outbreak of the war, World War II. He was a young naval officer. They wrote each other a lot. As he was courting, she was living in France. He was cruising far to the navy in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. He proposed to her and she was able to, with her aunt – this is after the Germans had already invaded France. My aunt was sent with my mother as the only family representative so that they could be married in Portugal. So, they went to Spain, which was where the borders were still open. Then the two young women, my mother was I think 19 or 20, my aunt was two years older than she. They met my dad in Portugal, were married in a church in Portugal. My dad then had to sail back with the navy, back to the States. Then he was able to arrange for my aunt and mother, who could no longer return to France, because by that time, the borders were closed. I was born in 1941. At the end of 1941, right after Pearl Harbor. My dad was immediately sent to the Pacific. So, I didn’t see much of him during my very early years, because of course he was in the Pacific fighting as an aviator. My French grandparents with my young French uncle – at that time – were also able to escape France. In several adventurous ways, they were able to also get to Spain, to Portugal and then to the States. They settled in Santa Barbara. My first memories as a child are being in Santa Barbara, in a family where everybody was speaking only French. So, my first language was French, clearly. Apparently, when my dad was coming home, my mother was saying in French, “He’s coming home. He’s coming.” Family lore has it I asked, “Hey, does he speak French?” in French. But I quickly learned English obviously, because we were living in the States. Other children followed, my sister Nanu. And then later, six more, and we moved a great deal. In the service at that time and now, you move from base to base. If you’re in the navy, it tends to be on one coast or the other. So, we moved. I can’t tell you how many houses we lived in. I can tell you that in the 12 years of school, before I graduated high school, I went to 12 different schools. All of us navy and army and Coast Guard brats will all tell you what it’s like to always be the new kid in school. I think it’s good training frankly. Also, if you’re in different places, different counties, different parts of the country, even different countries, you learn how similar everybody is everywhere. And will accept that they’ll have different accents and maybe wear different clothes. I think that’s been good training. Although, it’s painful when you’re a child.

I want to jump in and ask, how was your father’s French?

My father spoke pretty good French, with a strong American accent.

All right. I mean obviously, it was natural to you, but I wonder did you find – looking back – that there were any, was it strange to have your father communicating as second languages with each other or do you think that you were both fluent enough, quick enough, that didn’t really have an impact?

As a child, and you’ll see this in every family. Children become instinctive. They can tell from how somebody – a stranger walks up and you can tell what language to speak to them in. It seems natural, and you flow from one language to the other totally naturally. You don’t think twice about it.

But you still had to learn English though, even upon him coming back.

Yeah, but the easiest way to learn is by talking, by being around. Obviously, what you learn is children’s languages. You might not use the right grammar etcetera. Later on, when I was going to be working in France and Paris, when we were working on The Louvre, I realized that my French was really children’s French. And that I knew that it was important to be able to say thee and thou to the right people, and you and yours to the correct people. In French that’s important. It’s rude to thee and thou people who you’ve just met or who are your seniors. So, I had to take a few more classes to learn business French and grownup French.

And you said the moving was good training. Can you dig into that a little bit? So, how specifically did it train you? What did you take from that?

I think you learn how similar everybody is. You become quite colorblind, because you’re in different cultures. For example, when we were in Hawaii it was interesting. In my school, I was the only Haole – which is the somewhat rude Hawaiian word for white people – in my class. I had to learn to defend myself and start to speak Pidgin Hawaiian, Pidgin English that is to say, but you learn how to accept everybody, and how similar we all are. Clearly, you also learn that there are in different cultures, different ways to be polite, and different gestures not to make, and different gestures of friendship or etcetera. You do learn all of that, but you learn it instinctively. Languages are best learnt instinctively, and by being immersed.

There are two planes or levels on which … I travelled quite a bit. I think you do see – like you said that the expression of culture is somewhat arbitrary. It serves a very similar need across the globe, but at the same time, there are some interesting … Even if the culture itself is arbitrary, the act of putting roots into a culture can have an effect on someone. Do you find that if you didn’t have those specific roots and recognized the commonality that changed the way you approached the world and thought about things? Does that make sense?

I think you notice the things that are peculiar to any one culture. As a child, when I was in schools in the south, you pick up the accent very quickly. It’s quite disturbing how quickly you pick the accent up. But you also learn to be a little bit skeptical of people’s attitudes if you’ve been trained in another attitude. I remember, as a child, I was put in third grade into Jeb Stuart Elementary in Norfolk. I thought it was peculiar that it was named for someone who had been in the … To a southerner it would be natural to name it for a famous general on the side of the Confederacy. But for me I just remember thinking, “That’s odd.”

Let’s keep moving through then. You have now a pretty large family. I think we’re up to eight.

Yes, I was the eldest of the eight. It was me, six sisters and my brother Loric. We two boys sandwiched all the girls.

My original question was accomplishments, what was with your father and your mother. Did you feel like you had a higher functioning household than those that you observed around you or did you think it was a pretty normal, army-brat family?

When you’re a child, you think everything is normal in your family. So, I never thought of us as being different. Looking back, I realize my father was a very distinguished naval officer, and highly decorated. He fought in three wars. He fought in World War II, the Korean War. Both of them where he was flying military attack planes. And then in the Vietnam War, by that time he’d been promoted to be admiral. So, he was the admiral of the fleet in the Tonkin Gulf. I guess, we thought that was normal, but looking back, I admire what he did in his career.

Was there any expectation that you would also go into the military?

I wanted to go into the military. When it was time to choose colleges, when I graduated high school, I submitted my application to Annapolis. We were living in Annapolis at the time. My father was teaching there at the academy. But I remember a discussion with my dad in which he said, “You’ve never known civilian life. So, you might want to check as to whether that would be attractive to you.” I hadn’t thought of that. So, I applied to a number of colleges. And I was lucky to be accepted by a lot of them. I was able to go to Harvard. And I did not look back. During the Vietnam War initially, earlier on I was tempted to join, to leave college. By that time, I was in architecture school at MIT. I talked to my dad about it. He wrote me a letter saying, “Yann, leave that to us professionals right now. Unless we or they make a mistake, this is not going to take a long time.” That was 1963. So, he was mistaken. Neither side was very rational about the whole thing. It was a tragedy, but I did not join, because he suggested finishing college which of course he was paying for.

Why would you consider? What was the impetus for that?

Service.

Service.

And, you know, we all want to serve our country in whatever we can, in whatever profession we are. My dad was doing it as a military man. So, I thought that would be a natural thing to do. Also, I thought it would be kind of cool to fly airplanes or to steer ships. I think that’s a natural to think. Our son, Wells Luke has been attracted to the military since he was very young, and is now a captain in the US army as a physician and as a service member.

So, in college you had a fortuitous relationship. You had a roommate who had a father, who turned you onto a new potential profession.

You’ve done a lot of homework. Oh yes, that’s true. My roommate, Edward Lawrence’s dad, James Laurence, was a distinguished, very well-known architect in Boston. Because my family was far away, they would let me stay with them every weekend practically. I would go back to their home with Eddy and spend the weekends with them, spent a lot of time talking with Jim. I loved the way he spoke, and how he thought. It influenced me. By the end of my freshman year, I went to Jim and I said, “Jim, I would like to be an architect.” I think he was pleased but he suggested that I keep on with my studies in history and other matters at Harvard. But to get all of the requirements for architecture school which are basically math, physics, chemistry, those things. I did that, because I enjoyed them. Then in my senior year, I was able to double register with Harvard’s permission and MIT’s permission. I double registered. So, I was taking classes in architecture at MIT, and finishing my thesis at Harvard.

Wow, that is accomplishment in a nutshell there, double registering at two amazing universities. Before you were exposed to architecture, what path were you on? What was the path you shifted away from into architecture?

You know, I was fascinated by everything while I was at Harvard. That’s the glory of being in good university, and we have wonderful ones here in Florida is, you just become interested in everything. If there is a course in music or a course in chemistry or a really good friend of yours says, “Oh my God, you have to listen to this lecture,” and, “Philosophy is just fascinating,” or somebody is saying, “While I was at Harvard. Hey, there’s this guy named Kissinger. He’s giving some really interesting lectures. You should sit down on some of them.” I was fascinated by everything. I was interested in architecture, because all my life I had been drawing, doodling or drawing. I remember being reprimanded in fourth grade by my marvelous teacher, who had let me sit in the back of the room, which was where she let the good students sit. Because I was doodling while she was teaching. So, that came naturally to me. I’m not that good at drawing, but I love to do it. I like to think about things through. As an architect, drawing is a very useful skill. I’d say it’s an essential skill.

Certainly. So, that led you to applying to work with I.M. Pei. As best I can tell, that was just a front door submit and apply and be accepted. Is that the case?

It was not. I had a family friend who knew Mr. Pei, and who wrote him a letter saying, “Please take a look at Yann.” So, I was interviewed by I.M. which I think was something of a luxury, because by that time he had an office of at least 80 people, but I was accepted. I was very fortunate. He died very recently, at the age of 101 or 102. And he was a marvelous mentor, a great leader and a close friend.

You’ve talked about his humanity, his politeness, his attention to detail. What are some of the other things when you look at him as a mentor that are uniquely him that influenced you?

He was uniquely sensitive to other people. I remember when we were working in France, his French was not that good. It got better over the seven years we worked on the Louvre, but I remember in a meeting he hardly understood what one of the speakers was saying. He was representing the government who was being very insulting in French. And he didn’t understand what the man was saying. But he understood very clearly through the man’s gestures and demeanor that this was not a good meeting. And that he was being insulted, but he was also extraordinarily gracious. I think I’ve only seen him angry one time, after a very difficult interview in D.C. on Robert Kennedy’s gravesite, which we worked on in Arlington cemetery. And a person we respected, who was on the Fine Arts Commission, and that had a say in our design gave us a very poor grade, and told us to change things. And I remember, I was squirming during the meeting, I hope not visibly, but as we walked out to the car, he said very calmly to me as we got into our rented car, “You know Yann. I’m very angry.” He grew up in an aristocratic family in China. They were based in Shanghai. And they would summer in Suzhou. So, he grew up with an extraordinary Mandarin upbringing. That kind of polish, and that kind of understanding, but also that empathy towards others.

It’s extraordinary to me that he never got angry during building the Louvre, the pyramid was very contentious. I think at one point, 90% of Parisians were against it yet, you persisted. Do you remember that journey?

It was very hurtful, because – and I’m half French so I can make this joke. We French love a good argument, “Never let the facts get in the way of one.” The facts in the case of the Louvre were we were improving the Louvre, but it’s natural. In France and all over the world, people who tend to be more to the right side of the political spectrum are fearful of change. People on the left side of the political spectrum may be too accepting of change or looking forward to change. It wasn’t a 90% people in France against it. All the young people loved the idea of the glass pyramid and fixing the Louvre. But people I respected – on the other side of the spectrum – were terrified. I mean, if you had said to me before we started the project, “Hey, somebody is going to put a glass pyramid in the center of the courtyard of the Louvre,” I’d say, “What, that’s a really weird idea.” but what we were doing made sense. Because we were actually making the entrance to the Louvre underground. You would have to enter an underground space to go into all the three wings of the Louvre. It would feel like a subway station unless, you had volume. Unless you had daylight. Unless you could see the sky. Unless you could see the Louvre around you. That’s what the pyramid was for. We won the argument after over a year of being on the front page of every paper – people pro and against it – by convincing the government to have a major exhibition on the grounds of the Louvre, with models, drawings and as well we did a mockup of the pyramid using the biggest crane we could get in Europe. So, it was out of your eye sight, which would pull up cables to represent the shape of the pyramid. That next Monday, or very shortly after the paper, the Figaro – some right-wing paper, good paper though – said, “You know, maybe it’s going to be okay.” Chirac, who was mayor of France, and was being prepped to be a conservative candidate for president, went visited it. We had met with him. I.M. and I had met with him several times prior to that. He said, “I’m going to inspect it. I want to see it with my own eyes.” We raised the cables up for him and he said, “It feels like the scale is okay. And it’s going to be of glass. So, you can see through it. You will be able to see the palace.”

I think a wife of a former leader also supported it.

Madame Pompidou.

I’m really curious. As you were in those strategy sessions, both of you have worked on these incredibly public projects in national capitals around the world. So, you have to understand politics whether you like it or not. As you were figuring out how to get the pyramid accepted, what was that process? How intentional were you about the mass marketing elements of it? How understanding were you of who the power players were and what their interests were and how to approach each of them? Did you have intel on each person and who might be an ally and who might not to be? Did you have to get that granular with it?

We did not quite do that, because we were working with the Élysée, with the president’s team and with the government. The government was for it. And the president was for it, but I think the most important aspect of what we did is we – after months of discussing this with the government people – we said, “Look, we think the facts are on our side. We think, if we can explain properly to France what this project is really for. That’ we’re doubling the square footage of exhibition space. That we’re creating clean locker rooms without water on the floor and rats running through them for the people who are doing… the staff, who are the guardians and the security people.” If we explain that we’re making an extraordinary laboratory for a restoration within this. That we’re going to take all the valuable paintings which are currently in the attic where the roof is leaking onto them and putting them in safe vault storage. If we can show them the truth of what we’re going to do. At that time, the Louvre courtyard was a gigantic, dusty, dirty parking lot. For the treasury building It was not safe at night. People were being mugged at night in it, because it was poorly lit. It was not what it is now, which is what it should have been. It should have been a glorious memory of the history of France. It should highlight the wonderful historic architecture of the palace. If we can convince them of that, they will like it. Initially, some of the advisors and ministers said, “No, we’re going to just ram this through. Last thing you want to do is to join in the discussion. When we did that exhibition, which was in May, which is a national holiday, something like 80,000 Parisians in their best Sunday clothes came to the exhibition. I think there were one or two fist fights outside between people who are for and against. We won Paris over in that exhibition. The government had found attractive, young people – men and women – put them into really nice, blue blazers and white shirts. And trained them to give the story, so they could stand behind the exhibition tables etcetera and explain.

How much of the pressure fell you being – obviously I.M. is Chinese. You’re half French. Were you then a lightning rod for the pressure, because of you being the most native son?

I.M was the pressure point. What was very hurtful to him was there was a good deal of xenophobia on the side that was attacking the project. It really did hurt. They would say, “We don’t want a Japanese garden in the Louvre.” Of course, getting confused between Japanese and Chinese. And don’t want an American, “We don’t want the Louvre to be Disneyfied. We don’t want the Coca Cola initiation of our national moment.” You have to understand that the Louvre is more important than the president’s house in the French psyche. It’s at the heart of Paris. So, as French we care about it. Both sides were right to care about it. It was just that the people who were criticizing it that time, most of them will tell you now that they were for it, because it’s been accepted. It’s on the T-shirts. It’s in the postcards. It’s in all the movies. If you want to show Paris now, if you want to set a movie in Paris or an adventure or a romance, what do you do? You show either the Eiffel Tower or the Pyramid or both.

I have to ask anecdotally around, it wasn’t much longer after that that “The Da Vinci Code” came out. Do you remember a spike in energy around that?

I don’t know, but we weren’t living in France when it came out. Susana and I were not in France, but I do remember seeing the movie. I remember, talking with I.M. on the phone and saying, “I.M., did you see the movie The Da Vinci Code?” “Uh-huh,” he said, “You know, the inverted pyramid never looked so clean.”

So, your work with I.M. on the Louvre was actually your second run with him. Your first, was right out of school when you worked on the Gallery in Washington. Then you jumped out pretty quick to do your own thing. And to have your own struggling, but independent practice. Do you remember, or it was just pre-ordained in your mind that you needed to do your own thing, or do you remember the thought process you went through?

Oh, the thought process was simple. I had been offered a teaching position in London – an architectural teaching position. I loved Britain. So, I accepted that. I went to I.M. I said, “I’d like to take a sabbatical and I’ll come back in a year.” When I did return – after a year and a half – by this time I wanted to be better at my trade, at my profession. I had not learned a great deal on the projects on which I’d worked about detailing, because I had been working with people who are specialists, and really good architects with more training than I had on that. Certainly, everyone understands architecture is a team sport. One person cannot do a complex building. One person could design a house, but that takes an entire team. At that time, it would take a team of 20 architects within the office to design a major project. A lot of the detailing, I would not be able to create the detailing, but would work with people on the detailing. So, I really wanted to get better at that. I thought, if I had my own practice for a while, I would have to learn that, which I did. I started Red Roof Design in New York and a studio – marvelous studio in Long Island City, which has now become quite gentrified, but at that time was not. After a while I had brought in a partner. Later on, we put together a team. We did it for 10 years successfully. Doing projects that we’d get in the magazines, but we were also learning how to do things with our hands. We even had a small machine shop. So, we would make things. We could make our own door knobs if we wanted, a special door knob for a client. We could make our own lighting if a gallery person wanted special lighting. I think that training was very good, but I stayed in touch with I.M. and with his son Diddy who had become a close friend. He was still working in this office, with Sandy his other son who is also in the office. We stayed in touch. We would have lunch together or a dinner. At one point, I.M. called me in my office. By that time we’d moved our office to Manhattan. He said that he wanted to have lunch. I said, “That’s great I.M. I’d love to.” He said, “There’s something I want to talk to you about,” he said, “But I can’t talk about it on the phone.” So, I told my partner Peter, “This is going to be interesting. This is something of a mystery.” So, I went to a wonderful Italian lunch and a great restaurant with I.M. I was the second person after his wife, he was talking to about the project. He’d been invited by Mitterrand to fly to Paris and to consider taking the Louvre on as a project. I had helped I.M. a tiny bit on a project that went nowhere in Paris while I was still at Red Roof that had been shot down by the former president, the president before Mitterrand. It had been painful for the pay office because they had put a lot of energy into it. Suddenly, on a turn of a dime it disappeared. He knew and I knew that there is a risk on major political projects in France. He said, “Yann, this is an interesting project. I’m hesitating. Do you think I should do it?” I said, “You adore France. You love French wine. You love French art. You love French architecture. You love the Louvre.” I said, “Have you seen the movie ‘The Godfather’?” he said, “Oh yes, very violent.” I said, “Well then you know what an offer you can’t refuse is.” He laughed, and he said, “Yann, you’re right.” So, he couldn’t refuse it. But I will say and – we’ve been talking about a difficulty we ran into politically and Mitterrand ran into politically on the project. It was a risk we were taking. It could have been a six-month project, but it was not.

Then when you talk about an offer that you can’t refuse obviously, it was as big as it gets to some extent in the architectural world. Obviously, there’s huge projects, but in alot of projects I guess, you got a little bit spoiled working on the National Gallery as your first professional project. How does the role of the iconic-ness of potential subjects play into what you do when you have to mix that in with houses and other buildings and things like that? Do you have appreciation for that?

I think I.M. and certainly me too treat every project as a special project. I don’t care if it’s a tiny house or factory edition. Once you’ve accepted the project, and part of the exception is you have to like the client. You have to like their goals. You have to see why completing the project would make a difference. Once you’ve done that, it becomes a mission. I think yes, the Louvre is very – the Louvre, the East Wing, the Dali, the James and a whole lot of the projects I’ve worked on loom very large in my memory and I’m proudest of them. But frankly, each project becomes very special. They’re puzzles. We are problem-solvers.

In the spirit of that answer then, I’d like to shift the conversation away from the big names and the accomplishments a little bit to the craft itself. One thing in researching for this that you cited Louis Sullivan’s ‘form follows function’ pretty often. I’ve seen you map that over to how nature works beautifully and without waste. Something that you’ve mentioned even earlier in this conversation. I’m thinking about digging into this into two parts. The first is around the term function is ‘form follows function.’ So, is function at a fundamental level indifferent to beauty or does beauty emerge from function or is beauty itself a level of function?

I think beauty emerges from function. Function is multilayered. I like to think that the greatest designer is nature. If you’re a spiritual person, you think it’s the almighty. Nature designs things all by itself. Evolution designs things. And you look at how the growth of a leaf or you look at the form of an insect or the form of a butterfly wing or the form of a fish, they are all very beautiful. How are they beautiful? They’re all functional. The butterfly wings have evolved, the color has a function. Even if we haven’t yet scientifically understood the function it has in the butterfly – maybe it’s just to be able to recognize a mate. But it also has to be able to fly. A cricket has to be able to leap. The design of each of those things, the design of our bodies, the design of our eyes, the design of our bones. All of those tend to be very beautiful. I think that what’s interesting is sometimes when I’m designing something and I’m letting function and the program and it’s in the site, investigating ways to resolve those, it’s not so much I want to make it look like this. You try to find out what it wants to be. Louis Kahn said, “This is what it wants to be.” He was fascinated by that. But then as you look at it – maybe in the evening. And you look at the drawings you say, “Gosh, that really looks weird. It’s ugly.” The next day you come and look at it, you say, “Wow, this is kind of interesting.” The beauty tends to come from that.

I think that speaks to the extraordinary level of talent it takes to get it right, because using nature as an example, 99.9% of all the things that were are gone. Call them failures, there are things that we’re evolved out of, right? So, when you though, are – in the micro – forced to take a blank slate and turn it into something someone using an example that only 0.01% had to be right, you have to decide in real time what is waste and what is not waste. When I walk into the James Museum, a giant waterfall is the thing that needs to be there. That is ensemble, a little functional and beautiful, but not waste. I guess, as you dig into that, probably the most interesting would be, “When things are 50-50, maybe their waste or maybe their beautiful function, what is that wrestling match that happens when you’re trying to figure that out?”

You have to find it. Often, you’ll find it by talking with colleagues or friends. And try to understand it. The waterfall at the James is highly functional, but it’s functional on a psychological level. It’s not functional on an energy level. It’s not functional on an architectural level. The arroyo, the canyon that you enter when you’re in the entry hall at the James, a lot of those shapes actually are functional. It juts out here, because that’s where we have the upstairs little theatre. It zig-zags in here, because we didn’t need space. And we wanted some room for our sculpture there. but at the same time, it’s zigging and zagging and it’s in the stone to – in a very abstract Cubist way, refer to canyons out west, arroyos out west, ravines out west and the waterfall at the end is there very simply because, wouldn’t be what creates a ravine, what created the Grand Canyon? It’s water. When you’re in an arroyo out west, you are careful because you have to know that you can scramble out. because if there is a flash flood 30 miles west of you or east of you, coming down that ravine, you could be in trouble. Those are things that are multifunctional. Each of my projects tend to be quite different from the others, because the functions will be different. The museums don’t look the same, because the art within them is not necessarily the same.

It makes sense that the specific elements that you mentioned that were to serve a theater or to serve an overhang or something, that’s part of solving that puzzle. When you get to the more aesthetic options of the puzzle, do you approach it as if there is one right way to do it or multiple right ways to do it, or do certain elements start to inform what is going to be the right way for the other elements? I would think that might even translate back to people’s discussions about the Louvre. Because it may be not that it was right or wrong. That potentially just there were other alternate methods that could have been equally good. Is the puzzle one puzzle or are there 20 potentially just as equally good puzzles?

Buckminster Fuller when asked, “Oh gosh, Mr. Fuller there are so many problems in the world. How can you be worrying about searching?” Bucky used to like to say, “There’s problems, problems, problems but for every single problem there are many, many solutions. All you have to do is look for the best solution. How you balance your priorities in architecture they have to do with ease of construction. Is it possible to build it? Can I build it? Is it less expensive to build it in this other way? Should I use this other material? You look at options all day long. Sometimes, you’ll pin 10 options on the wall. Then you’ll get a few friends from the office come in, and you’ll say, “Take a look at these. Let’s look at these. What do you think?” With Mr. Pei, we would show him option A, B, C and D. He would always choose option F, which would be, because he’d been informed by the other options. His mind would be able to say, “What if we flipped this and meld it with that one?”

And there is a value to that. I have on my team people write things for me all the time. And I go in and completely rewrite them. They laugh, but I say, “I wouldn’t have written what I wrote had you not written what you did.”

Exactly.

When you look at the progression of humanity, we’re getting a lot more technological. You seem to have embraced and really kept up with all the technological advances as far as the tools and used them to free you more in doing your work with 3D modeling and those things. I think Revit was one that you used way back when, but what about from the user experience end? As we’re becoming more screen based in our experience. And less and less people are finding their way through those ravines and then out west. How is that changing architecture?

You know, I don’t think it’s changing architecture. I think what’s changing architecture is that we’re getting better at less manual intensive ways of building. Which means that people who are building buildings are more highly paid, better trained. And it takes fewer people to put things together. CNC machining is extraordinary. Now, you can make different shapes with the glass enigma skylight and the form at the Dali would have been impossible 20 years ago. It only became possible 10 years ago, because each piece could be computer generated, so that 10,026 panes of glass could all be individually cut to the right shape that wasn’t identical to any of the others. And ditto for all of the pieces. There are more tools, but we haven’t given up any of the old tools. We still draw with pencils. On a computer, your most powerful tool is delete. And with a pencil your most powerful tool is the eraser at the end of it. You can make modifications and keep modifying and evolving something towards a better solution.

Wonderful. I want to finish up by talking about work-life balance. I find it lovely you and Susana are both fortunate enough to do things that you love. And you spend a lot of time at them. What’s it like in the house?

We’re very fortunate right now with Susana’s new job, working for the Florida Orchestra that her office is 15 minutes away from her home. For the first time in our whole lives together which is well over 30 years now, we drive to work together. I drop her off. I go to my office which is five minutes further north in St. Pete. She’ll call me when she finishes. I’ll go pick up and we go home, but work-life balance for us is pretty horrible right now. Because both of us have projects that we care a great deal about. Some of the things we would love to be doing would be to enjoy the beaches of St. Pete. And to be able to walk. And to enjoy nature more. Right now, our beautiful, little, tiny garden which is overgrown with tropical plants our part of nature that we’re able to use. Our work-life balance is not terribly good right now. But I can’t say that I’m complaining, because I’m loving what I’m doing. As hard as what she is doing right now during Covid which is very tough on the performing arts, and all the arts in fact, it’s very rewarding when she has a success or when the music comes out of that extraordinarily good orchestra.

Beautiful, and I know I said that work-life balance would be our last topic. But there is another topic that we cover, because you’re very passionate about it. And that’s the environment.

Climate change is upon us. It’s no longer a theoretical threat in the future, we’re there. The world is warming. The storms are bigger. They last longer. The rains are harder. The floods are worse. Species of animals are migrating to the north. They have sharks now in Maine. It is as the president says – and a number of people – it is an existential threat to our society and to our planet. As architects, we are highly aware of that. We’ve been aware and talking about this for 20 years now. I’ve been aware of it since the ’70s, but as architects, we have a handle upon making a difference on this. Because in the energy picture of the United States, buildings consume more than transportation and more than industry, either when you’re building them or when you’re operating them. So, we have a handle on making our buildings far more efficient. You’re aware of the lead points in terms of how to rate buildings. Now, the goal is no longer to get gold or silver or platinum. The goal is to make a building net zero. That’s possible, people are doing it. There are lots of way to do it. I won’t go into all the details and all the nerdy parts of this. But it’s another part of the puzzle when you’re doing a building.

Yann Weymouth, thank you so much for your time and insights. And for all the beauty that you bring to the world. I’m very happy that you chose St. Pete to call home. And look forward to speaking again soon.

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1 Reviews on this article

Marcelo Salup
06. 05 2021, 10:02:3737
Yann is 100% great, Susana is nothing short of amazing (and speaks fluent Mandarin), we were neighbors for 5 years in Brickell and are still friends. But 5 stars to Joe Hamilton. Great interview! Really did his homework and added a well thought out personal dimension

About the host

Joe Hamilton is publisher of the St. Pete Catalyst, co-founder of The St. Petersburg Group, a partner at SeedFunders, fund director at the Catalyst Fund and host of St. Pete X.


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The St. Petersburg Group brings together some of the finest thinkers in the area. Our team is civic minded, with strong business acumen. We seek to solve big problems for big benefit to the city, its businesses and its citizens.