An Interview with Jim Christopher, Architect

An Interview with Jim Christopher, Architect, Principal, Brixen & Christopher, Salt Lake City

Conducted November 15, 2012 This interview is part of series that will appear on slmodern.org during 2013.  These interviews with prominent Utah architects of the mid-twentieth century were arranged and conducted by the Division of State History  in order to document the emergence of modern architecture in the state through trends, influences, new materials and technologies, and education. Check out a comprehensive list of the work of Brixen and Christopher. Interviewer’s Note: Mr. Christopher supplied the interviewer with notes that he had written in response to the interview questions prior to the interview.  Those notes are referred to at several points in the interview. Bim Oliver: Tell me a little bit about your education and training and any that is specific to modern design. Jim Christopher:  Well I attended what was then Rice Institute now Rice University and graduated in ’53.  Went in the Navy and then subsequently had a couple of years at MIT for my Master’s.Jim Christopher at his desk flipped At Rice we were laboring under the Beaux Arts “treatment”.  And at that time I don’t know what it was called.  It wasn’t called Beaux Arts.  But we had modern problems, and then we had things that were calling for a modern twist.  That’s what my schooling was at Rice. Bim Oliver:  I’m interested by the phrase “modern problems”.  Tell me a little bit about what that means.  Or things that needed a “modern twist”. Jim Christopher:  The problems were written in such a way that they required a modern answer.  And so that’s what we did, even though it was under the Beaux Arts banner. Bim Oliver:  In that context, what do you mean by “modern”?  Were you talking about technology?  Were you talking about “style,” I guess, for lack of a better term? Jim Christopher:  “Style” might be more appropriate.  Heavy emphasis on plan.  I know that in one case the term monumental camps came up.  It was focused mainly on modern architecture. Bim Oliver:  After that, you served in the Navy and went to MIT.  Is that right? Jim Christopher:  Yes Bim Oliver:  And how long were you there? Jim Christopher:  I was able to get through in twelve months. Bim Oliver:  What was happening in MIT at the time?  Was there an emphasis on modern design there? Jim Christopher:  Oh yeah.  Pietro Belluschi was Dean.  And our critic in the first half was Geeks [G.E. “Kidder” Smith].  He had written a book.  But then in the second term we had Lou [Louis] Kahn and who came up from Philadelphia on a weekly basis. That was a time when there were “starchitects” dealing with the design of embassies all over the world.  Our Master’s class was maybe twenty students, half of whom were from another country.  We would get together when we knew someone was coming in town to review with Pietro their design work on a Friday night (or on any other night) and buy him (it turned out to be all “hims”) a dinner and talk.  We talked.  And it was great fun.  It, it was really good time. Bim Oliver:  And these people were bringing in – would you say they were bringing in modern influences primarily? Jim Christopher:  Definitely. Bim Oliver:  After you left MIT, were you working in the Boston area or did you come right out to Utah? Jim Christopher:  I came to Utah to teach at the university.  I accepted an assistant professorship which brought me to Utah sight unseen. Bim Oliver:  Why did they pick you?  Were they looking for a particular design aesthetic?  Or were you a star student? Jim Christopher:  Yeah [laughs]. Bim Oliver:  What was it that you were bringing to the faculty? Jim Christopher:  No, no, none of that.  At the time Utah School of Architecture was quite new, and it was the only accredited school in between St. Louis and the coast, I guess.  And it had an MIT-centered faculty.  When Steve MacDonald decided that he wanted to practice full time, he left at the “upper scale”.  And that left an opening at the “lower scale” for me. Roger Bailey was the Dean of the school.  He wasn’t called “dean”; he was “head of the school”.  And he wrote to Andy (Lawrence Anderson) and asked the question, “Do any of your people in the Master’s class, want to go out west?”  And he knew that I did.  And so anyway, one thing led to another and that’s how I got the job. Bim Oliver:  Who or what would you say were your primary design influences?  They could include other architects, designers, journals, professors – whatever. Jim Christopher:   At Rice, Anderson Todd, who was a Princeton graduate.  He first came in my sophomore year design class.  He was a Mies [van der Rohe] guy.  And then at MIT, Lawrence Anderson, certainly, and Geeks [G.E. “Kidder” Smith].  And then Lou Kahn.  They all had an influence on my career. Bim Oliver:  When I talked to Max Smith the other day, he talked about a Miesian school of modern design versus a Bauhaus school of modern design.  The former was more focused on what might be called style, and the latter was more focused on structure and space. Jim Christopher:  And technology. Bim Oliver:  Is that a safe way to distinguish? Jim Christopher:   I think so, yeah. Bim Oliver:  Did you see yourself moving in one of those directions or another?  Did you make that distinction with these design influences that you had?  Were they moving you in a certain direction with modern design?  Or did you not even think that way? Jim Christopher:  No.  I don’t think so.  No. Bim Oliver:  Another interesting comment I got was from Will Louie.  He said, “I never really thought of myself as designing modern buildings.  I was just designing buildings.”  He was working mostly with institutional clients, and so I think there was a different focus there. But when you were designing, were you thinking in terms of the aesthetic – that it belonged to a certain school of design, if you will, like modern?  Or were you just designing buildings, and they turned out the way they turned out? Jim Christopher:  Generally, I was designing buildings, and they turned out whatever, with an emphasis on context.  And then later on – technically – an emphasis on energy-saving devices. Bim Oliver:  When you say “later on”, this would be recently later on or even within that period that we’re looking at. Jim Christopher:  Well, when we were working on Snowbird (pictured right), for instance, we had an energy analysis done.  And that was Snowbirduncommon at the time, I think, to look at different sources of energy.  We ended up using a thermal wheel, which is a large wheel that extracts some heat energy that would have been exhausted. Bim Oliver:  I want to go back quickly to something you just said.  You said, “I was interested or focused primarily on context.”  Tell me what you mean by “context”. Jim Christopher:   The environment. Bim Oliver:  The space of the building? Jim Christopher:  Yeah.  Wherever the building is going. Bim Oliver:  Okay.  So in response to “What types of/styles of buildings were you drawn to as an architect?” you wrote “anything ‘modern’”. Jim Christopher:   Yeah [laughs]. Bim Oliver:  When you went to MIT, did you go there thinking I want to learn more about modern design or something along those lines?  Or did you just go in there thinking – I mean, do you think you were predisposed to that style of architecture?  You said, “I’m never going to design anything Neo-Colonial in my life!”? Jim Christopher:  Yeah [laughs]. Bim Oliver:  Or was it just something that evolved for you? Jim Christopher:  I think it did evolve.  We used to have long debates about modernism [laughs] and if you were a starving architect, for instance, when a client came to you with a ton of money, would you design a Colonial building?  And who knows? [laughs].  As it turned out there was a strong influence [at MIT] on modern design. Bim Oliver:  What appealed to you in particular about that style and why would you have gravitated to that as opposed to any other number of choices you had? Jim Christopher:  Well that’s all I knew.  Starting at Rice, I was grounded in that. Bim Oliver:  Let’s just walk through the history of the firms that you were associated with.  Don Panushka’s name comes up quite a bit. Jim Christopher:  Yeah.  He was teaching for my first year on the faculty.  I was working part time, and later I worked full time for him. Bim Oliver:  What kinds of work were you doing with him?  Were you doing residential, commercial, institutional? Jim Christopher:  Well one of the projects that I remember was at Westminster College.  He designed a couple of dormitories that I contributed to.  And the Park City Feasibility Study.  He was working for Walker Wallace (I don’t remember his firm’s name) who had the major contract.  We measured all the buildings, including the terminal downtown that is no longer there.  It burned down.  And residential stuff. Bim Oliver:  And then you moved to Lorenzo Young? Jim Christopher:  Yeah.  Bob Fowler got me involved with that.  He was one of the partners as was Shirl Cornwall.  I was there for – I don’t know – less than a year.  And then I went to work for John Clawson who was associated with Marty Brixen.  And then we formed Brixen and Christopher. Bim Oliver:  Okay.  And when you formed Brixen and Christopher, would you say that the emphasis of what you were doing there would have been modern design? Jim Christopher:  Oh yeah. Bim Oliver:  Almost exclusively?  Were you doing anything but that, would you say? Jim Christopher:  No, I don’t think so. NunemakerBim Oliver:  What modern buildings would you characterize as your best work and why?  And I’m going to let you talk to these three answers that you’ve written.  Let’s start with Nunemaker Place, Westminster College (pictured left).  Tell me a little bit about that project – why it’s important to you. Jim Christopher:   Well, Irene Nunemaker was responsible for the building.  She was an executive with Avon products.  She had met Manfred Shaw who was the president of the school at a Presbyterian event.  And she said, “Watch Avon’s stock.  And if it gets to be a certain value, call me and we’ll see what we can do.”  And so he watched it.  [laughs] And she did come through.  Her criteria were really simple.  It was a small building, and she wanted it to be used.  She wanted it to have a sense of permanence.  Those were the only criteria. Bim Oliver:  Stylistically, did she say, I want this to be a modern building? Jim Christopher:  No, not at all. Bim Oliver:  So were you responding more to primarily a functional set of needs first and then modernism arose out of that?  I mean, because, again, you could have chosen any number of styles as opposed to building different designs. Jim Christopher:   No.  I responded to the context more than anything else.  It [Nunemaker Place] is across the gully where the housing is now.  We wanted it to be vertical, so you would see it as you approached it from the northern campus.  It was designed as a spiritual life center, but it was not used that way for very long.  Now it’s being used as offices for the honors program.  Which breaks my heart. Bim Oliver:  In your notes, you use the term “sculptural”. Jim Christopher:  Well you would have to see the building. Bim Oliver:  Okay.  Kol Ami.  That’s the synagogue.  Is that right?  By Tanner Park? Jim Christopher:  Twenty-third East.  Right by Tanner Park. Bim Oliver:  When I talked to Will Louie yesterday, as I mentioned earlier, he said he wasn’t really thinking in terms of designing modern buildings.  Usually, what he was trying to do was respond to the client’s needs and the style, so to speak, would come out.  There was more of an emphasis on how the building worked. In this case – in particular, Kol Ami – were you thinking, “I want this to look a certain way.”?  Or was it more that the style emerged out of everything else that was going on – how the space was going to work? Jim Christopher:  It emerged.  No preconceptions.  Well – very few preconceptions. They have the same problem that the Christian communities have: At Easter and Christmas, you can’t build them [churches] big enough.  And for the high holidays, the same is true with Kol Ami and other synagogues in general.  You can’t build them big enough.  So that involves a certain degree of flexibility.  And we just took that and made it happen. Bim Oliver:  Would you say that modern design principles are more oriented towards that kind of flexibility of space than, say, if you were going to design the building in a different style? Jim Christopher:  No.  It just kind of grew.  It was interesting.  They had a visiting rabbi from Israel at their opening, and he wanted to know whether the architects had been to Israel.  And the answer was no. And he said he was surprised because this exhibited some of the things you’d find in Israel. Bim Oliver:  I was reading yesterday about the Bauhaus school.  And I came across a website that is posted by a Jewish organization (I’m not sure which one it is).  But part of it was devoted to the fact that Tel Aviv apparently is full of modern architecture.  It’s everywhere there. Jim Christopher:  I’m surprised. Bim Oliver:  Now you wrote under Kol Ami: “most interesting process”.  Tell me what you mean by that. Jim Christopher:  [Laughs] Well, it was a merged congregation – conservative on one hand and reformed on the other.  And the building committee was made up of both.  Both.  And Marty and I ended up playing referee at some of those meetings. The process involved a kosher kitchen, which they do have or had, at least.  And they had two kitchens – one meat and one dairy.  And ordinarily you wouldn’t have that.  You’d have separate sections of a kitchen.  But lack of trust, I guess, in operation forced us to have two kitchens. There was music in the prayer hall.  That was one of the concessions that the conservatives made. Bim Oliver:  You mentioned Snowbird.  You have notes here: “strong concept, energy-efficient, and technology”.  Just tell me a little bit about the Snowbird project, if you will. Jim Christopher:  At the time, Jack Smith was a member of our office, and he had done preliminary work for Ted Johnson. Bim Oliver:  Ted Johnson was the owner of Snowbird.  Is that right? Jim Christopher:   Well, the founder of Snowbird.  The owner was Dick Bass from Texas.  Anyway, we – the Snowbird Design Group – ended up designing that.  Ray Kingston was working for us at the time, before he went to Iran.  He was gone when most of the design work was done on Snowbird. It was an interesting project.  The first project – well, I don’t know about the first – but it was a high-density project.  We were forced into that, really, by the lack of fee simple land available.  And when you build buildings six stories tall, that’s what you get. Bim Oliver:  So stylistically, these buildings – the buildings at Snowbird and to a certain extent Nunemaker and Kol Ami – would you say that the technology needed to create these spaces, to create these structures, goes with the style, if you will?  In other words, could you have built these buildings, these projects – could you have done them in a different style other than a modern style, given what you are trying to accomplish?  Were they sort of driven in that direction? Jim Christopher:   Modern was a given for us. Bim Oliver:  Do you think that’s why you were hired? Jim Christopher:  Perhaps, perhaps. We bought into the concept of a concrete frame with cedar and glass infill panels and an accent of granite.  That’s it.  That’s Snowbird, you know. We built that first building in 1967, I think, in the fall.  And it served as a model building – six models.  Ted and Wilma Johnson lived in the lower two, and they had their office on the third level.  The others were demonstration units to sell the Lodge at Snowbird. Bim Oliver:  When you look at other buildings that were designed during that period in Utah, what ones do you look at?  Ones that you did not design, but you say, “That building is significant.”  Are there ones that stand out in your mind as particularly important from that period? Jim Christopher:   I did a lecture on significant buildings, and I’ve listed some of them with notes. Bim Oliver:  Would you look at two or three of these?  Do any of them stand out from this list? Jim Christopher:   The First Security Bank Building was – when I came to town, that was the only building that stood out as modern.  The Charleston Apartments were significant, I think, because of what they are: a concrete building.  And the Salt Lake City Public Library by E and D [Edwards and Daniels], I think, was the primary example at that time of a modern building. The IBM One, designed by Jim Hunter.  It featured post tension.  Ip Falk Jorgenson was the structural engineer.  And that’s the first post-tension building that I am aware of in Utah. Prudential Federal was an interesting concept.  Bill [William] Pereira designed it.  Pereira and Luckman.  It has been so altered that it’s scheduled to come down.  It’s on Main Street as part of the site for the [Utah Performing Arts Center] – it’s the one with the seagull sculpture. The LDS Church Headquarters designed by [George] Cannon Young is culturally significant.  It was out of scale in some people’s minds. And the Steiner American building.  They really tried – Bill Browning and crew really tried – to make that fit in.  They had to demolish a great building: the Cosgriff Mansion. Governor’s Plaza across the street, I thought, was a significant building.  It was a concrete building.  And the Kearns-Danes Alley [Bridge].  It’s exceedingly small, designed by Boyd Blackner, on the west side of Main Street between first South and Second South, I think.  Anyway, in the Kearns Alley.  Boyd collected an AIA Honor award for that, when the AIA used to have a differentiation between various building types. Utah Retirement Building and Eaton Kenway – I don’t know if they’re significant or not.  But the IBM Two is the concrete building that John Clawson did. Abravanel Hall I think is an excellent building.  (These are modern buildings.)  And Utah Driver’s License is a John Sugden building there.  I don’t know if it’s used for that or not anymore. Bim Oliver:  Where is that one? Jim Christopher:   Out at the Fairpark.  Dinwoody old and Dinwoody new.  You know the history of that.  It’s in Salt Lake City, too. Bim Oliver:  As you were working, what partnerships did you develop in designing modern buildings?  They might include institutional, government and contractors, other architectural firms you might have worked with.  You say most of your clients were repeat clients.  Tell me about what you mean by that.  In other words, most of your clients were commercial, residential, institutional?  Or what were they? Jim Christopher:  Very little residential work.  A lot of institutional work at colleges on campuses and so on.  The strongest bond we had was with Ranch Kimball, the president of Cannon Construction. I knew him in either my second or third year of teaching.  He had graduated from Columbia and wanted to be an architect.  So he was in my first-year design class and then working part time for Cannon Construction.  He had married Margo Cannon.  And after one year or so, Ranch decided that architecture wasn’t for him – that contracting was.  And so we had known each other through that association, and he became a client, a really good client. Bim Oliver:  When your clients were coming to you, were they asking for a particular style of building to do?  Did they say, “I like the IBM building” or “I like this home up on the East Side” or whatever?  Or were they saying, “Here’s what we need, can you find a building that meets those needs.”? Jim Christopher:  I think the latter.  Most of our clients, our new clients, came to us because of our design reputation.  Which was a modern reputation.  And we did our best to turn them into repeat clients. Bim Oliver:   We’ve talked a little bit about this, but what was the breakdown of your work among various uses, commercial, residential, civic, religious, et cetera?  You’ve already mentioned that most of your clients were institutional. Jim Christopher:   We were lucky in that our practice included buildings of all types.  Not much residential, unfortunately, because they were fun clients to have.  They came to us because of our design reputation. Bim Oliver:  What materials did you utilize in designing modern buildings?  At the time, would any of them be considered “innovative” or at least relatively new Utah?  And you have written, “Wood!” Jim Christopher:  Well, Salt Lake, when I came here, was a brick town.  Really a brick town.  And wood, which I was used to using, was a no-no, a cheap alternative. Bim Oliver:  That was the perception? Jim Christopher:  Yeah.  And so wood is not a new material certainly.  But our firm helped introduce wood to the public. Bim Oliver:  You said it was because people here were sort of masonry oriented. Jim Christopher:  Yes. Bim Oliver:  Traditionally? Jim Christopher:  Yes. Bim Oliver:  What technologies did you utilize in designing modern buildings?  At the time, would any of them been considered innovative or at least relatively new to Utah? You talked about energy analysis.  This is particularly interesting to me, because Will Louie yesterday said, “We weren’t really concerned about energy efficiency.”  That was a period of time when electricity didn’t cost anything.  So what moved you in that direction?  Because that sounds extremely innovative for the time. Jim Christopher:  One of the projects that we designed was the Metallurgy Research Center for the Bureau of Mines, adjacent to Research Park, which has seen many owners, I guess. Prior to starting that we had our engineers do an energy analysis, looking at various ways of doing that.  And as it ended up, the solar-assisted heat pump was the method chosen by the GSA.  Which was not the least expensive way to go.  But they did it primarily for a demonstration project. We had our engineers look at coal, which had a great deal of front-end costs – heat pump, solar assisted heat pump, several more.  But as I mentioned, the solar-assisted heat pump was not the least expensive, but I think the heat pump was.  Anyway, that was an energy analysis that was not common at that time. Bim Oliver:  About what year was that? Jim Christopher:   I think in the seventies. Bim Oliver:  You mentioned Snowbird as one place where you did an energy analysis.  Is that something that you brought to the client?  Or did the client at that point say, “It would be nice to know how to save money on this.”? Jim Christopher:  No.  We brought it to the client. Bim Oliver:  Did anybody say, “Ah, don’t worry about that.”?  Or was this something that was pretty well received by your clients? Jim Christopher:  I don’t know.  They were probably saying that to themselves.  But we were able to make a, a forceful presentation, I guess, to spend the extra money to do it. Bim Oliver:  Are there characteristics of mid-century modern design in Utah that are particularly unique to Utah?  You’ve written a two letter answer here: “N O”. Jim Christopher:  No. Bim Oliver:  That’s a little bit of a fishing expedition.  In part the question came what you just referred to.  To me, this is a very traditional culture – I’m not referring just to Mormon culture – but, for example, the fact that everything is brick here or it was brick when you came here. A lot of that came out of a very particular approach to building that was related, I think, to Mormon culture.  But I’m wondering whether, as modern concepts were adapted here in Utah, there was a need to assimilate them (for lack of a better term) or whether they just came up with these modern principles – you and others brought them in and here they were?  Were they incorporated in the same way that they would have been incorporated in any other part of the country? Jim Christopher:  I think “no” is the answer. Bim Oliver:  How would you characterize the acceptance or application of mid-century design in Utah – modern design in Utah – compared with that in similar states or areas of the country.  You wrote “Slow”.  So when you first arrived here in 1956, did you go, “What have I got myself into?”. Jim Christopher:  [Laughs] It was a culture shock. Bim Oliver:  An architectural culture shock. Jim Christopher:  Yeah.  I came from the Boston/Cambridge area, which may have been a hot bed of – it was an urban area. Bim Oliver:  The forefront of modern design.  With MIT and Harvard. Jim Christopher:  Yeah, oh yeah. Jim Christopher:  And it was a shock to come here and teach. Bim Oliver:  And when you started practicing here and your designs were out on the ground, so to speak, and you were seeing other designs going on, did you feel, “This is happening here.  We’re starting.”?  Or did you always feel a little bit like you were swimming upstream with these concepts? Jim Christopher:  Swimming upstream [laughs] is a good way to put that.  Yeah. Bim Oliver:  So have you traveled to similar states or other parts of the country – if you go to even neighboring states like Idaho or Wyoming, do you feel like there is more going or there was more going on there with modern design?  Or is Utah unique in how it had adopted modern design?  Not necessarily stylistically. Jim Christopher:  Utah is fairly isolated – with Denver to the east and the west coast.  And with the exception of Denver, there wasn’t much going on that I could ascertain to the east.  The west coast was San Francisco and that had a lot going on. Bim Oliver:  So isolation was the key ingredient of this slowness, if you will, in the adoption of modern design.  Were there other reasons that you think it just wasn’t moving here as much as it was in other parts of the country? Jim Christopher:  I’m tempted to say lack of talent.  It’s not throwing brickbats at the architects of the era, but I think that maybe in addition to the others… Bim Oliver:  Maybe a lack of – I’ll use the phrase a “density of talent”, where you don’t have many designers or architects working in that school of design. Jim Christopher:  Yeah.  I think so, yeah. Bim Oliver:  If you went to Boston and you said, “I need somebody who can design a modern building for me”, you’d have a jillion people right there already. Jim Christopher:  Right. [laughs] Bim Oliver:  And so you could separate the wheat from the chaff a little bit there.  But out here there just weren’t that many people. Jim Christopher:  I think so. Bim Oliver:  I just want to ask you quickly about the influence of the School of Architecture on modern design in Utah.  What do you think the influence was of the university?  There seems to have been a lot of modern emphasis coming out of there. Jim Christopher:  Oh yeah. Bim Oliver:  So how do you think that influenced what was going on in Utah at the time? Jim Christopher:  I encouraged the graduating seniors to go elsewhere and then come back. Bim Oliver:  Go somewhere else.  Out of Utah? Jim Christopher:  Yes.  Elsewhere out of Utah – for ten years – and then come back after they had matured and learned and so on. Bim Oliver:  You encouraged them to do that, because you felt like there just wasn’t enough going on here? Jim Christopher:  Yes, exactly. Bim Oliver:  Did they do that by and large?  Did they go away and never come back?  Or did they just stick around? Jim Christopher:  [laughs] No, in spite of my teaching. Bim Oliver:  Do you mean they didn’t leave or they didn’t come back? Jim Christopher:  They didn’t leave, because it was too easy for them not to.  And those who left didn’t come back [laughs] for a long time. Bim Oliver:  Well that stands to reason.  At a certain level, if there wasn’t a real density of talent in modern architecture, there wasn’t a density of activity either.  So if I go to wherever – Denver or even San Francisco or Boston – because Jim Christopher told me to, and I end up in the middle of this – relatively speaking – hubbub of activity, why should I leave? I wonder what would have happened if those people would have created that density.  It would have been interesting to see. Jim Christopher:  Yeah. Bim Oliver:  Anything that we have not covered that has come to your mind that you want to talk about? Jim Christopher:  Well it’s too bad that John Sugden isn’t around anymore.  Because he, he was a Mies guy.  And he would have some interesting commentary, I think, on the status of modern design. Bim Oliver:  Like what?  If you were John Sugden – if John Sugden reappeared, what would he be saying at this point? Jim Christopher:  Well you know his house exemplifies what John Sugden was, I think.  He was associated with Dean Gustavson for a long time. And was responsible I think for the Miesian influence that came out of Dean Gustavson’s office.

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