John Carl Warnecke
The summer I worked for John Carl Warnecke, who just passed away at age ninety-one, I was asked to find some examples of past work the firm had done for a presentation. I went rooting through the archives and kept coming upon, amid a great deal of rather mediocre projects this huge firm had produced, beautiful designs filled with natural light that ran across sensuous white forms. I started pulling these images until my supervisor told me to put them back. They were all designs by Bill Pedersen. I was told the story, which I cannot verify, that one day Gene Kohn, the firm’s rainmaker, went to Warnecke and told him that he wanted to be a partner. “There is only one name on the door,” the imposing former Stanford football star said; “And that’s me.” The story continues that Kohn walked out with one arm around Pedersen and the other around his Rolodex to found Kohn Pedersen Fox, which within weeks had stolen most of Warnecke’s clients. By the time I arrived in the summer of 1982, what was once one of the country’s largest firms was trying to revive its fortunes through joint ventures with Michael Graves (they did the Humana Building together) and Frank Gehry. Steve Harris, the man who introduced Michael Graves to poche planning, was there designing a city in Saudi Arabia. None of it lasted.
Warnecke retreated to his ranch on the Russian River, leaving the firm to limp on for another decade or so. Gone were the glory days when he was Jackie Kennedy’s favorite architect, designing buildings for the Feds all over the world, including an office building right next to the White House and JFK’s gravesite. What Warnecke still had was great stories, and I am glad to hear that he finished his memoirs before he passed away.
Hawaii State Capitol
I am sad to say that Warnecke stood for the worst in American architecture in some of its worst decades. He started in the 1950s by designing beautiful school buildings in the Bay Area, and was one of the first designers to try to adapt the abstractions of modernism to local traditions and climates, both there and in Hawaii. It was the reason he won the White House commissions in the first place. By the 1980s, however, he was creating such monstrosities as the AT&T Long Lines Building in Lower Manhattan, a windowless behemoth whose mass he accentuated, rather than attenuated, through an attempt to sculpt its top. Much of the work was a kind of weakened modernism that combined bombast with bad proportions.
AT&T Long Lines Building, Manhattan
It was especially difficult to see because, first of all, he was such a charming man and, second, few other architects with large-scale commissions knew what to do. Postmodernism was teaching us that we had to refer to and learn from history, but nobody knew how to make columns work at the scale of a skyscraper (they don’t). Kevin Roche—whose brilliant early efforts when he continued Saarinen’s office were brutal, but clear and clean—was trying, and the results were worse than the products of Warnecke’s offices. Even Skidmore Owings and Merrill had lost the gridded path.
I had fun in the office, and worked on some projects I wish had been built. Jack Warnecke was always supportive, not only of me, but of many young designers and critics who passed through his office and orbit. I prefer to remember him as the man who had an eye for talent such as Pedersen en Harris, who was earnest and concerned about architecture’s role, and who was a raconteur who knew how to live his life with gusto. I hope that life and those intentions, not his buildings, will be what we remember.