20 Questions


Eric Kuhne

By Bonnie Blackburn
As a boy, Eric Kuhne traveled the country with his Air Force father before settling in New Haven. Now he travels the world, designing magnificent buildings and cities that capture the spirit of the people who live there. He got his start designing Headwaters Park as a city architect under former Mayor Ivan Lebamoff and recently sat down with us to discuss his plans for expanding that downtown jewel and to play 20 Questions.


How does American architecture differ from the rest of the world?
In America a lot of cities have been based around the automobile instead of based around the pedestrian experience. What we find is that our work has huge demand in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and of course the Far East, Asia and Australia because those societies are still based on the idea of the community of spirit, café society and inquiry. The automobile is a much less important part of that world. That said, what we’re finding in America now is there are cities like Fort Wayne that are rediscovering the downtown as a place where people can enjoy a collection of civic experiences. It’s just unprecedented and with the doubling of the library, the Grand Wayne Center, the Courthouse, municipal buildings, the performing arts buildings and now with Saint Francis, it’s unbelievable and all these things are all within walking distance. My first job in Fort Wayne was to design the master plan for the downtown and bits and pieces of that are now happening with extraordinary momentum and I think you’re going to see a renaissance to the heart of downtown Fort Wayne where people are going to start moving back into the center of the city because the quality of their life and the experience, the social experience of enjoying cultural events and performances, is a really a big signature part of our time. I have great hopes for Fort Wayne’s future.

What do you think of the plans they have going on for Fort Wayne?
Fort Wayne has more opportunity than probably any other city this size in America. To have a pot of money focused on improving the quality of life in the city is so rare but you also have a new consciousness with the mayor and council and the private sector, they’re forming these partnerships with institutions like Saint Francis and the convention center and the library. Fort Wayne has not had this much potential for major reinvention of itself since probably since Ivan Lebamoff was mayor. And I see such an astonishing future for the downtown as re-emerging as a centerpiece as the entire, not only the city but Northeast Indiana.

Talk about life before Headwaters.
The kids growing up in the city today will never know growing up without a great central park and it used to be a collection of automotive supply stores, there was a Pontiac dealership, a transmission repair (shop), nuts and bolts and pipefitters. Seat Cover Charlie. Oh my God. I think there were like 16 businesses down there and they were holding on by their fingernails because of the 100-year floods which occur every seven years in Fort Wayne. For us, the ideas that inaugurated Headwaters actually began a century ago. We simply built on the legacy of what was an astonishing movement at the beginning of the 20th century, the City Beautiful movement. That movement was to a large extent was championed not by the leaders of the cities, but by the women’s movement. While the men were out being captains of industry and industrialists and making a lot of money, the women were focused on the quality of life for their families. The offshoot of the entire women’s suffragette movement at the beginning of the 20th century was a raised consciousness that the quality of life was as important as the quantity of money. Fort Wayne was one of the few cities that was a direct beneficiary of that. Most of the park system that we have today and most of the ideas about the downtown were really generated by two reports. One by Charles Mulford Robinson in 1909 and then in 1912 when George Kessler came in. … Robinson came in in 1909 and built the spokes of the wheel, saying let’s develop the rivers as great, green public promenades and then Kessler shows up in 1912 and he puts the wheel around the perimeter. And then we come along in 1974 and recommended the ideas that eventually became Headwaters and we put the hub of the wheel in place. Those three moves — Robinson, Kessler and myself — only work because there were mayors and councils at that time and with strong support from community groups, particularly the women’s groups, to basically lift the quality of the city. The big story in all this, and this is an amazing story, the big story is Fort Wayne has more civic amenities than any other city in the United States of comparable size. Between the wars up through the ’50s, Fort Wayne had the highest number of locally owned businesses of any city in the North America. You had the brain trust of those boards of directors with incredible civic consciousness pouring their philanthropy into the city and building the (Embassy), the art museum, the Civic Theatre, the botanical gardens, the hospital network, the school network. These are extraordinary civic investments that were being made and as a result Fort Wayne, even to this day, per capita, has more civic amenities of any city of its size in the continent. And that is a sense of pride that Fort Wayne owns and deserves to own. All we have done is simply carry on that spirit of creating great civic experiences for the citizens, visitors, family and guests and even strangers that come into the city. It’s unprecedented, really.

Define architecture as diplomacy.
We believe that architecture is the new diplomacy because architecture records the belief of a leadership of a city in built form that endures far beyond that administration and that life. Look at what we have here. Our Filtration Plant at the confluence is one of the finest Art Deco public works buildings anywhere in the country. The Lincoln Tower is one of the most exquisite architectural pieces. So it’s not just building space or trying to get tenants, it’s creating architectural forms that represent the ethos of a society. When you can do that, when you can capture the spirit of a citizenry and put that into built form, that endures and teaches the generations that come about how a city believes in itself and how a city represents itself to the rest of the world. For instance, we did the Titanic Museum in Belfast. There’s an example of architecture as diplomacy, with all the violence Belfast has endured over the past 35 years. Both sides got together and met with us, (and said) this is important because you’ve honored the 500-year history of this city as a great shipbuilding city and that rises above all the political debate. They found through our building something that they could agree upon and in doing so they stopped fighting. Part of the fight is people being humiliated about their own contribution. When you honor the contribution of any part of a society in built form, that thing endures as testimony of genius and strength of that part of their civilization that matters. And when you deny people their contribution, you basically erase their presence. Architecture is one of the ways you can do that. When we say architecture is the new diplomacy, it really just celebrates the contribution, not only the legacy of what’s gone on in the past, but also the prophecy of what is going to happen in the future. All of our projects around the world are landmark projects that do just that.

You’ve got such beautiful works.
We’re hired by heads of state, great men and women who believe passionately about their society’s role in contributing to the advance of everything from civilization to human rights. They say, we don’t want a building, we want something that’s going to stir the souls of the people who live here and the people who come and visit. And when you tap into that, then you’re into a really astonishing and almost mythical conversation. Many times they say, how do we begin? You have to answer the simplest of questions and the hardest answers to come. And that is, what type of citizen do you want in this city or this country? To see heads of state push back and go, “my God, no one’s ever asked me.” That is the most fantastic thing, because they then start and get their ministers and department heads together and we start these conversations and out of it comes volunteered ideas they would never, ever talk about in common conversations and once you get that sorted out everything changes.

Define Civic Arts.
It’s basically restoring the storytelling qualities of cities, and the pageantry and vitality of civic life.

Talk about the pageantry of civic places.
It’s not enough just to have space. Modernism has taught us if you just build open space and don’t breathe life into it, you create desolate, anonymous places that scare people. But if you build buildings and public spaces that honor the diversity of the people that live and work and play and shop and are entertained, you can change the life of city and a society overnight. When we talk about pageantry, it’s not just the big spectacles; the Three Rivers Festival or Johnny Appleseed Festival or anything like that. It’s the heroic routine of everyday life. People will save up money to go have their two-week vacation someplace. They go to amusement resorts or they travel or something. Then they come back home and it’s the routine of life. But if you can dignify the other 50 weeks out of the year, with an excitement of just living in the city, you rewrite the story of everyone’s life immediately. What you’re saying is: you don’t have to travel outside the city to feel like you’re part of something bigger than yourself. If you can do that at home, you can change the dynamic of the way everyone grows up because you create the most significant thing that a city can be about, which is the marketplace of ideas.

Your philosophy is that the city is the marketplace of ideas. Describe that.
The most spectacular thing is when people have the accidental encounter. You bump into somebody you don’t even know and start having a conversation and all of a sudden what they’re doing which is totally unrelated on a day-to-day basis to what you’re doing, all of a sudden there’s an overlap and it sparks an intersection of ideas that you would never have otherwise. And the city is always the only place that can host that type of explosion, of cross-pollination of creative ideas. Oliver Wendell Holmes coined the phrase “marketplace of ideas,” this idea of a society that is so comfortable to raise controversial ideas and let debate be the battleground where those ideas are honed and matured as opposed to staying locked away in their little turfs or little villages and being separate from that. When we start diagramming and designing city plans, is how can we get the highest number of intersections between the greatest diversity of people living and working in that center. Because when you get those intersections happening, then you have the entire city come to life with ideas.

How did the themes that you incorporated in Headwaters Park still echo in your work today? We see a lot of those curving lines and those intersections.
Our basic idea with form and the layout of Headwaters is that you can circulate in that park and even though the park is only on 30 acres, you can walk through that park for hours and not repeat a path. The most important thing is that all those paths cross and intersect. So you run into somebody who’s walking with a kid in a stroller, or you walk into someone on a bicycle or you run into a group of kids who are playing. Those intersections are the embodiment of the philosophy, which is that you create a place that can handle the highest number of people intersecting in unexpected ways. The other part of the layout of Headwaters that’s so important is that if that were just grass and a few trees and more of a bucolic rolling landscape, we could handle maybe 1,000 people tops in the park over the course of the day. With the way that park is designed, with a series of garden rooms, we can handle 4,000-6,000 people in that park, because everybody can carve out a little place that’s defined by the trees and the rocks as their own for that point in time. When we think more globally, we talk about designing rooms rather than open space. You can create open space, but if it’s ill defined and empty, people feel uncomfortable there. If you design a bunch of rooms, people will gravitate towards what they feel like. If they want to have an intimate conversation or a secret conversation or they want to be sort of strutting in front of other people, if you want to sit and have a drink, if you want to do a bit of work in a contemplative place, when you put those all together, we all have those different impulses during the course of our week but the more, the higher the variety of rooms that have diversity of design and comfort levels, the richer the experience is both internally and externally.

How did you get started?
My father, when I was 7 years old, said, “Eric, it’s about time you learned how to do perspective drawing.”

Was he an artist?
He was a master navigator and bombardier in the Air Force and he just loved art. So as a 7-year-old, I figured OK, this is what all 7-year-old’s dads do. I sit down and he puts this pad of 11-by-17 paper. He draws on it a letter “H” and then he draws it in perspective and this letter rises off the paper, and to me it was the most magical thing I’d ever seen.  It took me a few tries and I finally figured out how to do what he was calling one-point perspective. So he says, “OK, you go do some drawings and we’ll review these in a few weeks.” And sure enough about two to three weeks later, he says “Where’s your portfolio?” and I say “What are you talking about, Dad?” He says, “Where are your damn drawings?” I had a mountain of drawings like this. And we sit down; and he goes, “This is crap, this is awful, did you listen to anything? This is all right.” He gets this huge stack of drawings whittled down to about a dozen, and he says, “So, son, what have you learned?” I said, “I’ve learned that you are extremely hard to please.” He whacks me on the back of the head and says, “That’s not what you’ve learned. You’ve learned that if you can imagine it, you can draw it, and if you can draw it, someone can build it. Now get out there and start designing the cities and buildings that I’ve been trained to destroy.” It was like, OK, and so he says, “Son, you’re going to become a great architect,” and that’s how it started. And so every Christmas from that 7th birthday forward I’d get books on architecture and books on drawing and books on perspective and books on cities and books on civil engineering works like dams and motorways and such. There was such an enormous conversation that developed around that, that was so fantastic and I never looked back. And that’s how it all started. Over the years I would meet people who would take (interest in me). My history teacher at New Haven High School, Mr. Ed Zapp was his name, he encouraged me to do my term paper on Greek architecture so I handed him a 67-page paper on Greek architecture and I was like a sponge absorbing all this stuff. And Ed just bent over backwards teaching me this stuff. Along the way there were these mentors as much as tormentors that were part of the evolution of my life.
When I was 14 years old I was hired by a civil engineer by the name of Dr. Louis Pietro, Lou was the one who taught me drafting. I was doing job inspections for him as soon as I got my driver’s license, producing construction drawings as a kid. I just figured this is what everybody does. I didn’t really understand how these men that were part of my early life were taking time out of their lives to help me develop my art and the science to this. Without them I just wouldn’t be there today.

Why did you decide to become a British citizen?
I had lived outside of America since 1990 and been in the United Kingdom for at that point I think it was16 years, maybe 15 years probably, and someone just said “why aren’t you a British citizens, my gosh, this is your home, this is where the office is,” so I went down and got the application form and studied the test, which by the way is a monumental essay on the history of England … I took the test and passed it and that was that. It worked out quite nicely because I was also engaged to be married at the same time. We didn’t know this but my having British citizenship meant that my new bride could work in the United Kingdom — she’s Canadian.

To what do you attribute your success?
It’s really amazing to be able to get up in the morning and go to work and do what you’ve always dreamt that you wanted to do. And it’s not a job, it’s not a career, it’s a mission in life for me. There are tough days and there are extraordinary days as anyone has but the thing is is that every day I get to travel to exotic places around the world, we talk with people about building the spirit of what their societies and civilizations represent and create environments and buildings and cities based on that. I have to pinch myself because I can’t believe that this has actually happened. As much as all that’s happening, it means so much to come back to Fort Wayne where it all started. I mean I was city architect for (former Mayor Ivan) Lebamoff, I worked with Lou Pietro doing his early work, Headwaters (came about) when I was at Princeton. All of a sudden I get a call from (former Mayor) Win Moses and he says if you want to build any of this stuff you’d better get back here, and so I was on the next flight back from Princeton to Fort Wayne. All along the way these ideas, they found the place, they found a home. Now some of them have taken decades to be realized which I was not prepared for, I have to admit. One of the things is, when you’re doing something that’s provocative and new, is that sometimes the timing, it has to wait for the rest of the world to catch up to where those ideas are. And it’s not just my ideas; it’s the ideas of the clients and the leaders I’ve worked with. We’re seeing that now with Headwaters and the chance to build Waterworks Park, the chance to double or triple the size of Headwaters, which was all conceived back in 1982 during the flood and so here we are sitting, (in 2013) on the anniversary of the worst flood in Fort Wayne’s history, contemplating what we’re going to do next to beautify the rivers and improve the downtown. I just love this stuff!

There’s a lot of folks who credit Headwaters with giving downtown redevelopment the shove that it needed. What would your next step be?
Here’s the short story, it won’t be short actually! Headwaters was conceived to handle eight festivals a year. It’s currently doing 43 festivals and events a year. That means Headwaters is being used five times from what it was originally designed to be used. In my world, I want to build five times as much park along the rivers, each with festival terraces, performance places, garden rooms where more events will reward more people for coming downtown and being part of the life and the center of Fort Wayne. The next piece is to build Waterworks Parks, which to me is the iconic signature, and I guarantee you, that if we can get those fountains to work at the confluence of the three rivers, clean up the landscaping around the Filtration Plant, it will become the iconic symbol of Fort Wayne. And not just by a tower that’s owned by one group of people, the park is owned by everybody. If we can build Waterworks Park, extend Headwaters to the confluence I think we’ll build something that will be a cannon shot throughout the country, letting them know what a city can do to invest in its citizens’ quality of life, unprecedented in this day and age.

Are you involved with the drawings, have they consulted you officially?
I’m just as an advisor. The drawings have been done. One of the real treats on this particular trip has been talking to the mayor, talking with his incredible staff both in planning and redevelopment and engineering works and as we’ve been talking with them, they’ve got so many projects on the boil. All we need is that ignition. Someone saying, “Let’s get started.” Fort Wayne is unique in America. It’s had the same troubles every other city has had with collapsing industries, and mergers and acquisitions that have robbed the brain trust out of smaller communities and put them in boards of directors far away, but Fort Wayne still endures because the quality of life here is exceptional. The schools are incredible, the park system is incredible, things like the genealogy center, the library, the convention center, the Embassy, communities these sizes don’t have these amenities. This is extraordinary. So all our job is, is to keep on the momentum. So if we believe the park can extend to Swinney Park on the west to the Fort Wayne Children’s Home on the north to Waterworks Park on the east and keep that Superior line on the south that engages with the downtown. The park needs to grow. Because it’s being so overused right now that it could be a victim of its own success.

How do we stay on track? I mean, it took Headwaters Park 80 years to be developed.
This is the question of a true cynic! I want to hug you just to squeeze it out of you! You have the Legacy Fund from the City Light Lease, you also have Saint Francis that purchased the Scottish Rite Auditorium and the Chamber of Commerce building and they’re moving a campus downtown. You can put all the other conversations aside, about office and new residential and new retail and all that but the holy grail of civic development is to convert it into a campus. I used to live in Greenwich, England, for the first seven years I was in London and Greenwich was the old Naval College, which was empty. All of a sudden the University of Greenwich moves in, takes it over, brings Trinity College music in and so instead of downtown Greenwich being filled with old farts complaining about their past, all of a sudden it’s flushed with young students talking about their future. And you can’t ask for a better experience anywhere for any city than to flush it with the next generation eager to go out and change the world. And that’s what’s going to happen with Saint Francis coming into downtown Fort Wayne. And in a sense you get that now that the convention center is on the competitive level and you guys are stealing conventions from Indianapolis. I just love this stuff. You’re bringing people who are convening to exchange ideas on their careers or their occupations or their trades and all those conventions are again in the marketplace of ideas, right? And so those people come, they discover new things, they want to break out into the city and they want to go to the bars and they want to the restaurants and they want to go to the parks and talk about these new ideas about how they’re going to reinvent themselves and again, if anyone were to write a script about how to breathe life back into the city, Fort Wayne has the first seven chapters already written.

You’ve taken areas of areas of ugliness and transformed them into areas of beauty. What is your definition of beauty?
Ah, well, now we’re into some really heavy-duty philosophy. OK. Well, on an emotional level, beauty excites possibilities thorough the experience of what that beautiful thing is. When you run into something that you recognize that appeals to you in terms of its beauty, it’s because it triggers an emotional or a heartfelt response to the potential of what life is. That’s one piece of it. The next piece is, that beauty gives us a new pair of eyes to see the things that we’ve been looking at all the time with a whole new set of eyes. I used to, when I talked design, I used to say, your job is to go out there with X-ray vision and see what no one else can see that’s part of society and once you see that, your obligation is to transform that to dance or sculpture or paintings or building designs or music, transfer it so the rest of the world can experience it.  And so beauty for me has always been that capacity of art or science to give people a new pair of eyes to see what they’ve always been looking at and to experience the world as new and young and fresh again. These are like serious questions! These are scary! You’re changing my talk for tonight. This is great!

OK, here we go. Form versus function.
This is kind of the modernist lament and everyone see them in contradiction and in fact that are absolute codependent on each other. The two always have existed in a very strong relationship. What’s happened is that function, over time, has been defined more as utilitarian but we believe that, it’s not just as important to get the infrastructure of a city’s roads and bridges and utilities working, but you have to get provide home to the spirit of what that place is about. What I believe modernism did was it ground down the definition of function to a very utilitarian basis. To us, function includes creating a place that sparks the imagination, creating a place where people can let their spirit soar. I think what we see in the anonymity of modern architecture and modern cities that have been stripped bare of their story-telling capacity is that the functionality has ground down the essence of what make life exciting. It’s the mysteries of life, it’s the exotic parts of life and it’s sometimes it’s the dark part of life as well, so I think what we do, and we find ourselves always in these debates, is redefining what function is so that the form that wraps it is more elegant and more lyrical as opposed to perfunctory and boring.

Let’s expand on that a little bit. From the Titanic Quarter in Belfast to the Barangaroo Foreshore in Sydney, in your designs, you incorporate history. Talk about why that’s important.
As a designer, as a creator of cities and buildings, we’re as conscious about legacy, which is the past, versus prophecy, which is the future. And so if you build something that does not honor the past you dishonor the evolution of that place, and if you build something that doesn’t open possibilities for the future, you cheat the next generation. So to us, it’s getting a balance back and forth between those. Those are very fancy and prosaic ways of saying that, if the place doesn’t tell a story that a child can engage, you’ve lost out. And so every project we design, we try to incorporate some bits of civic arts that allow a parent to take their children there and explain where the history of a part of their city or their society came from. So when we did Darlington Park in Sydney, we built a set of murals into what was called the Star Court and those murals basically described in 15 panels, huge wall panels, the 15 generations that first came to Australia as Europeans and then evolved Australian society into an amazing, contemporary civilization. And when you’re standing there, you can still see people drag their kids in there and say “Look, that’s when your grandfather came over. He came over when this was just a little convict colony and then your dad grew up here when we had the gold rush at the Eureka Stockade,” and they add their own captions to the sculpture panels and read it like a cartoon script about the legacy that made that society what it is today. And in Headwaters and Waterworks Park, we had 20 sculptural panels, each one representing a 20-year generation, so 400 years of the history of this part of America. And we hope we can build this to tell this story. Because this is a story that Fort Wayne owns and nobody else can touch it. And yet, if you don’t build buildings or gardens or cities that tell that rich story then you’ve lost the plot. And modernism for all of its efficiencies, carries with it a sterility and an anonymity that has basically reduced the city to a grid pattern of steel and glass as opposed to the richness of great civic art.

What do you dream about?
Oh my goodness. I’m happy to say that my dreams are a theater of the absurd. I play out all the dramas of my life in the dreams and they are the biggest, most joyful entertainment and the greatest purge that I could ever hope for.

What design are you most proud of and why?
This is like choosing which child you like best. So I’m going to defer to say that Headwaters, as my first project, still holds a private place as where it all began. But, if I can add a coda to that, my favorite project is always my next one.

Who are your heroes?
Thomas Paine. He was the most published author of the 18th century, (with) four pamphlets, Common Sense, Rights of Man, Agrarian Nation and I blank on the fourth one, pamphlets that basically fomented the American Revolution, added momentum to the French Revolution, took on the Church and attacked it for being such an oppressive force and attacked the nobility and primogeniture, of ownership of land passing only to men. He was tried and convicted for treason in the United Kingdom and ended up buried in a pauper’s grave. Amazing. The reason I mention Thomas Paine, he sits there in this pantheon of thinkers, like people like Oliver Wendell Holmes for instance, or in some sense even Teddy Roosevelt that actually helped cement the national park system of the United States that Lincoln actually started but he’s the one who formalized it. So those are men that decided to change the world and then did not stop until they completed that. Because those are the people I end up working for. They are my clients. They are desperate to do that. And there are amazing men and women out there now that are desperate for the American dream all over the world. They don’t want American government — I’m not sure sometimes we’re exactly proud of our government — but they love the liberties and freedoms that we have and that is a momentum that is a life force that cannot be denied. And we’ve seen monumental changes just in our lifetimes — civil rights, women’s rights — now alternate lifestyle rights. A consciousness about the diversity of our lives is our strength, not our weakness. And so anybody that’s written about that … this is the 300–year anniversary of Diderot, who was the French writer who basically put together the first encyclopedia. Unbelievable, right? Unbelievable.

What frustrates you?
I can’t get everything done that I want to do and there are those who say that’s falling prey to the ultimate self abuse which is perfectionism. But I think that’s it. And a corollary to that is that in trying to get everything done, I tend to neglect the people that love me the most. And … I think that’s a balance that I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to get in the right proportion. And that is a source of daily frustration.

What’s your favorite Fort Wayne memory?
Oh my. I used to own a single scull. I lived on Edgewater and I used to go rowing every morning on the Maumee River up to the Old Crown brewery up at State Street and St. Joe River. There were mornings when the fog hung just above the water’s surface, and as the blades would go in and catch the water and create these eddies, and the eddies would drag on the fog and turn the water and the fog into small little tornadoes, whirlpools, and it would sit there and you could see the pattern of my rowing in the river with that fog. And there were always people who would get up at the same time in the morning and run along the riverbanks with me and I never knew who they were but there was like a kindred spirit with what the rivers were and it was one of the most sacred experiences I’ve ever had in my life.

That may be one of the most beautiful things anyone has ever said in a 20 Questions interview.
It was the most remarkable thing.

Speaking of water, so many of your projects help cities rediscover the waterways they were built on for a new generation. Talk about the importance of water in your designed.
I think that we’re all mapped in our DNA with fundamental things that we respond to: water, fire, changing clouds in the sky — and these are all primal instincts and the way our forebears used to navigate the wilderness. Water for sustenance, obviously earth. The idea is to use these primal parts of our understanding and the way we engage with the world and refresh those and often the best kinds of water experiences are the simplest. Sitting on a picnic blanket along the edge of the riverbank watching the water go by, right? Watching a simple fountain display which can be as mesmerizing as watching a fire on a winter’s night. And so for us, it’s not just the fact that water is something interesting for an individual, but water is something that engages groups of people to get together and so we use water not as kind of a little urban design or landscape trick, but we use it as a focal point to bring people together and all these conversations are triggered by something about a great water experience.

What’s the most fun part of a project? Is it the dreaming stage?
It’s the most amazing thing. You sit down at a table and you stare at a blank white sheet of paper and know that that first drop of ink is going to organize that page and all that you’re going to pour into that drawing is your imagination and your convictions about the way you can change the world. You know I’ve been told, “Eric, you’ve never grown up. You still actually think you can go out and change the world.” And what’s meant as a reprimand is in fact one of the greatest compliments I can ever have. Every day on every project we start out with a new blank white sheet of paper, and the excitement that comes at that very moment when you start to create, to transform a client’s ideas or dreams into something they can see, it’s magical. There’s no other way to describe it. I used to try to demystify it, but I don’t think people want that. I think they want to see that something they believe can become real. It never stops on a job, all the way through the construction, whether a contractor comes running up and says, “Eric, my God, there’s a new way of doing this thing,” and you’re sitting there drawing on a concrete walls how to solve it and that’s the construction drawing and then they go build it. It is phenomenal. And so if I can use the analogy of the music composition, there’s the composer, and then there’s the conductor and then there’s the orchestra and the best thing is is when those three groups are in the room at the same time and each is teaching the other about the spirit and the genius of that which they are all a part of creating and performing and that is the best part of every project.

You are designing for the future. People are going to be using your designs for generations. How does that feel?
It just feels normal. It feels just like that’s what we should all be doing. My mother got her master’s degree before any (woman) got her master’s degree back in the ’40s, and she believed that our obligation was to go out there and reinvent the verities, right, the truths that have endured through civilizations, to go reinvent them for our time. And the great thing about patent law is that you can’t patent an idea, but you can patent the expression of that idea. And my mother’s point was the ideas are a giant arc and every generation has a chance to redefine what that truth is for their time. When you’re raised that way, that’s normal, it completely changes your expectations. So producing something new every year, that’s the baseline. To pursue something that excites an entire decade or generation, that’s an extraordinary thing.

What kind of a student were you as a child?
My mother would say precocious and lazy and yet our library was always in reach of the dining room table and I have this enduring memory of my parents saying at dinner, “Well, kids, who are we going to invite to dinner tonight?” And we’d go, oh no, not again. And my mom or my dad would be reaching over their should and pulling out a book and said, “Eric, why don’t you read from Nathaniel Hawthorne tonight?” And the plates would be replaced by open books and we would talk into the night. My parents were always picking books related to what we were doing in school — it was always that diabolical creative side of them, which we loved. My folks said graduation means nothing. You’re going to be a student for the rest of your life. If the only thing you learn is to have an insatiable curiosity, that’s all we care about. And that’s the way the three of us kids were raised. My sister’s a teacher in Australia and my brother’s a research microbiologist. Here we are, my god, why aren’t Mom and Dad around to enjoy this?

What’s up next?
We’re working on some pretty exotic projects. We’re working on a Buddhist pilgrimage destination at the birthplace of Buddha in Lumbini Nepal. This is Bethlehem for the Buddhists and it’s an astonishing project. We’re doing a mega yacht marina in Miami, which is going to become the largest waterfront development on the East Coast of the United States that’s going to start construction in a matter of months. And we just designed a new town center for Abu Dhabi. This new town center, Abu Dhabi cut a deal with the Louvre museum, the Guggenheim Museum and the British Museum to build legacy museums in Abu Dhabi and make it the cultural capital of the Arabian Gulf, and we were asked to design the town center that connected the three museums together with a vibrant center. And by the way, that town center in Abu Dhabi is roughly the size of downtown Fort Wayne.

You never stop learning, do you? That’s what your parents wanted, right?
The most amazing thing when you come into a new society and a new country is that within minutes you’re down on your knees thanking your lucky stars that you’ve been allowed to explore another civilization that’s been ignored by the rest of the world. So for instance we’re doing this job in Kuwait, the City of Silk that you mentioned, and the emir of Kuwait, Sheik Al-Sabah says, “Eric, I’d like the tallest tower in the world.” And I say, “No worries. I got it all worked out.” He says, ‘How do you have it all worked out?” I said, “It’s gonna be 1,001 meters in height.” He says, “Eric, I don’t understand.” I said, “Your honor, don’t you see? One thousand one meters in height for 1,001 Arabian Nights? Everyone else is going to have a different height, which is a measure on a ruler, but we’re going to have the only height that taps into the deep folklore of Arabian civilization and translate that into built form.”
And the way the tower is designed, it’s like a three-bladed propeller that rises up, and as you rise up, one stops here, and one goes up here, and one goes up here. All together about 252 stories, so twice the height of the Empire State Building … which happens to be roughly the number of stories in “1,001 Arabian Nights,” by the way. The first one you go up and there’s a synagogue atop that wing, the second blade that goes up has a cathedral, the third blade has a mosque and the centerpiece has an interdenominational chapel. So he says to me, “I’m about ready to go in front of Parliament, and you’re talking about building a synagogue and a Christian cathedral.” I said, “Don’t worry about it. Four sentences is all you need.” He goes, “OK,” he snaps his fingers and his translators come up. I said, “We can no longer depend on Europe and North America to solve the conflict between the faiths. We are a product of the Abrahamic tradition that has generated all three faiths. And we and we alone have the capacity to resolve that conflict by teaching the world that faith connects people more than divides. And in building it here, at the bottom of the Fertile Crescent, we will restore the genius of faith and belief for the rest of the world.” He motions away his translators, says, “Got it,” turns around, flowing robes and goes into Parliament. I’m sitting there in the wings, and I mean, my hair is standing on end, and he finishes his talk with those four sentences and it’s dead silence. And I’m going, “Oh my God,” and of course his handlers are just like, “What have you done, Eric?” And I’m going, “Wait for it, wait for it.” And then the applause starts, Bonnie, and it goes on for four minutes and he comes off the stage, back into the wings where I’m waiting and he goes, “How did you know?” and I said, “Because no one has the courage to say that faith is not a reason to hate. It’s a reason to love, and you, today, became a great leader.” And he grabs my hands and says, “Eric, on this day, I worked for you.” I mean, I’m ready to start bawling. A guy from Fort Wayne, Indiana, an Air Force brat, using architecture to help stitch the world, the conflicts of the world, to stitch them together with the debate of ideas as opposed to violence and hurt. That’s just … I am just so grateful for my folks.

Posted: Mon, 04/15/2013 - 12:04 pm
Last updated: Mon, 10/28/2013 - 8:47 am