Thomas Phifer: light as an essential element of the project

Thomas Phifer is a New York architect who lived in Rome for a short time. During his career he had the opportunity to build various exhibition structures and some private homes.

Thomas Phifer is a New York architect who lived in Rome for a short time. During his career he had the opportunity to build various exhibition structures and some private homes. Although the factors involved in designing a museum structure are very different from those of a private home, it is possible to find some recurring traits in Phifer’s architecture. Two of these are certainly the great attention to the choice of materials and the use of light as a real design element.

1. First, something that we use to take for granted but it isn’t: when did you decide to be an architect?

I have had so many important mentors in my life, mentors that supported me and urged me to reach and have curiosity. When I was in high school they offered a course in architecture and the teacher of that class was my first mentor. He taught me to draw and to imagine- I could see the sparkle in his eyes and at that moment it felt like the beginning. 

2. Let’s talk about something very important for you: during our brief videocall, you disclosed your attention and interest in light and natural world connection. In which way do these elements enter in your projects?

Nature is light- shade and shadows belong to the light. We begin with the connection to nature letting light describe a moment by moment marking of our lives. 

3. The Tree Mag is an Italian-based reality and we know that you worked in Italy: moving from the previous question, as light and natural world, in particular landscape, are an essential topic for us, can you talk a little about your experience here in Italy? Which were your impressions about Italian landscape compared to USA?

My experience in Italy always returns to my time at the American Academy in Rome. Most every morning I would visit the Pantheon just to experience the light- to watch the rain passing through the oculus- and see the sky framed. It is that connection to nature that became an important moment in my life.  

4. On your website, you show pictures of beautiful models. It seems that they are not only the image of a final design. Is it an important part in your design process? In which part of the process do you use it? How is the model laboratory integrated with the “drawing-part” of the studio?

We build large models. They have more presence for us- we can begin to feel the atmosphere of the space and begin to feel the light. These models are done from the beginning and guide our process.

5. We saw that you don’t have preferences in using a material more than others: you pass from concrete to glass, from stone to brick with elegance and know-how. How much is this aspect important to you and which are the main reasons that push you in a clear direction?

We want to limit distractions in the architecture so you feel the light and experience it against the materials. We limit the number of materials so each can fully express their true nature.

6. Let’s talk about your work on museums. Is your design approach influenced by the collection or does it follow cross-referring themes like, for example, natural light?

Our work on museums is guided by the art- it begins with the art. But it also begins with light. The light is present constantly, it moves and changes and forms a bond with the art that defines our experience. 

7. From this point of view, can you talk about some of your present and future realizations, mainly about the Glenstone Museum and the Modern Art Museum in Warsaw?

I call these two museums the House of Rooms. They are specific rooms with specific proportions for the art. Natural light is omnipresent- all around. These two museums also have rooms within the art experience that are for pause and reflection, lined with wood and with no art. It is a moment to frame the city and the landscape in order to prepare you to begin the art experience once again. It is that time and distance between the art experiences that define the journey. 

8. Can you talk about the project Salt Point House?

It is a simple small house with grand spaces, each with an abundance of light. It’s facade made of perforated stainless steel that quietly reflects the light and nature of it’s place- and with its facade extensions blurs the architecture with nature beyond. It’s presence in the land changes constantly as the light changes constantly.

9. Can you talk about Hudson Valley House II and III? They apparently seem diametrically opposite in their relationship with the surrounding landscape.

Hudson Valley III is built on a rock ledge. We lifted it above the rock to separate it’s presence from the land. It is made of two rather robust slabs of concrete that as an experience horizontally frames the landscape and intensifies the experience with this remarkable site on a hill. The slabs are supported on a concrete cross core of service spaces and supported at the edges with thin solid stainless columns lightly touching the land.

Hudson Valley II is a village around a garden. As you move from the main collective space to your sleeping quarters you move through the garden. The collection of buildings also has a small chapel, a work space, and a art space. It has a facade of tarred shingles, so the buildings will recede into the landscape. 

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