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Stephen Gerard Dietemann: A poetic architect

If I had to say what is common to all good art, whether it be architecture, art, cinema, dance, music, or any other form, I’d say it was, finally, the unpredictable.

Great Barrington — Stephen Gerard Dietemann has been designing award-winning residences in the Berkshires since 2002, merging his sensibilities as a critically acclaimed and collected artist with his architectural ideas. An alumnus of Cornell University’s College of Architecture, Art, and Planning, he has simultaneously developed his talents as a designer with painting, drawing, and sculpture since graduating in 1976. His credits include exhibitions in NYC, Chicago, LA, and Aspen, recognition by “Art In America,” and work in the permanent collection of the Yale University Museum of Fine Art.

Stephen Gerard Dietemann
Stephen Gerard Dietemann

In his architectural practice, Dietemann specializes in small, sustainable contemporary houses, with a particular interest in difficult sites and the design challenges they present. His work has been cited for excellence by the American Institute of Architects, and his

work and essays have been presented on Home and Garden Television, the Artful Mind, Berkshire Living, and most recently in the spring issue of Berkshire Magazine. His bold use of modern materials, playful and skillful integration of building and site, and the sense of spatial expansion in a small interior have become his signature.

A new exhibition at the Berkshire Museum, “BerkshireNow: Stephen Dietemann,” focuses on the work of three photographers exploring five Berkshire homes designed by Dietemann. As he notes, the completed work of architects, especially residential, is rarely seen by a large audience; thus, architecture is primarily shared through photography. Featuring the photographs of Jonathan Hankin, Peter Pierce, and Paul Puiia, a series of five installations explore the relationship between the photographers and the architecture they capture, interpret, and present to the larger world.

In the foreword to the exhibition, Dietemann writes: “Just below the mechanical and hard physical surfaces of wood, steel, and glass that must respond to physics and the dynamics of weather and human use are the more ephemeral layers of metaphor and concept — the design — that ultimately dictate the physical reality. Once the architect and builder have completed their work, it is up to the photographers to re-expose that poetry — the building’s “soul” — again. Without their efforts, the building’s true identity, its mission, its serendipity remain largely hidden.”

I invited Stephen Gerard Dietemann into my studio and asked him a few questions for The Edge. 

JKL: Greetings, Stephen. To start, what initially got you interested in architecture?

SGD: Thanks, John. The answer to that goes way back. From about the age of 12 or 13 I wanted to be an artist. The spark was a summer art program at Fordham prep in the Bronx after my freshman year in high school. We constructed large plywood sculpture and did lots of drawings – I was smitten. That was followed by the arrival of an oil painting kit and an old masters sketchbook from one of my great aunts in France. High school was a difficult time for me so I retreated to my studio in the garage to paint and draw. Still, by the time I was ready to apply to colleges my mother encouraged me to follow my nascent interest in architecture. Cornell University offered both art and architecture in the department of Architecture, Art and Planning so I went to Ithaca and studied both for five years.

The Carr house, designed by Stephen Dietemann. Photo: Jonathan Hankin
The Carr house, designed by Stephen Dietemann. Photo: Jonathan Hankin

JKL: You have been living in the Berkshires since 2000. How many houses have you built here and what are some of the challenges you have encountered?

SGD: We bought and then renovated an old house on the banks of the Housatonic Millpond on Route 183 and I stayed there for a couple years. I did move to Hudson, New York, for a couple years to work on an apartment and restaurant project there, but moved back here for good in 2004 when I designed and built the “railroad house” on Route 41 in Great Barrington. Those were the first two residential design projects in the Berkshires. Since then I have designed many others, both renovations and new construction in this area.

I have lived in many places but when I arrived I knew this would be my home. I do not know a more beautiful place, combined with a healthy mix of economic brackets. It is a place for everyone really.

My intention here, architecturally, has always been simple: design contemporary, energy-conscious and playful houses. I started my architectural career in New Canaan, Conn., where I greatly admired the “modernist invasion” that had taken place there a few decades earlier. Some extraordinary architects – John Johansen, Marcel Breuer, Eliot Noyes, Victor Christ-Janer and Philip Johnson to name a few – brought the new architecture of the time to this somewhat staid and traditional New England town after the end of World War II. Frankly, Berkshire County has never been particularly staid – and is far more progressive than New Canaan ever was — but the vast majority of the houses here are also traditional. The problem, from my perspective is not with the actual 18th and 19th century houses – they are often architectural gems – but with the faux versions being built now, less than affectionately labeled “McMansions.” I have a problem with this aesthetic, primarily because we are in the 21st century and not the 18th or 19th. I believe it is critical for everyone, especially architects, to, in the words of the philosopher Ram Dass, “Be here now.” Architectural style aside, the Modernist movement brought amazing aesthetic freedom to us, new materials, new openness and lots more light. Most importantly, for whatever flaws it had, it looked forward and the faux architecture is always looking back wistfully. Well, read about the 18th and 19th century and it is quite clear they were not the “good old days.” By the way, renovate and otherwise treat the actual old houses with great respect – that is responsible stewardship – but do not slavishly imitate them.

There are other challenges of course, such as the cost of land and building in general, the death of the “community bank” around here, but those things are governed by forces generally out of our control; what you build is very much in your control.

Luckily for me, I have found many people willing to join me on the adventure that designing their own home is for all involved. It really is a journey of self-discovery since if you don’t really know who you are or where you want to be how can you design a house specifically for you?

The Webster house on Route 183 in Glendale, designed by Stephen Dietemann. Photo; Peter Pierce
The Webster house on Route 183 in Glendale, designed by Stephen Dietemann. Photo; Peter Pierce

 

JKL: We both share a passion for poetry. How does this relate to your practice?

SGD: I do love poetry. In fact, I have been working on a series of “drawings” called the “Fire Drawings Series” since 1994 that incorporates poetry into its form. These drawings are made by myself and others throughout the world by burning paper and letting the wind sculpt the carbon splay into forms unique to that moment and that location. Robert Penn Warrens’ poem, “Explosion and Simultaneity,” provides the direct form for one of drawings, but poems by Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, Sylvia Plath and of course Yeats inspire me as well.

That said, my interest in poetry as an architect as well as an artist, musician and writer, is more general as well, in the sense of “great imagination and expressive capabilities (and) special sensitivity to the medium,” as Merriam-Webster defines the poet and poetry. I like to say that I design in poetry and build in prose as a shorthand way of describing a complex process as simply as possible. The architect, like all artists, needs to be open to everything as the creative exploration begins; the “prose,” be it building codes, budgets, banks, materials and physics, will arrive soon enough. The prose part is no less important of course, but it cannot flower without the poetry fueling it from the start. In many ways, the animating presence or absence of this “poetry” is the difference between architecture in the best sense and simply functional building.

JKL: You have worked with the same builder/contractor, Jay Feldman of Town and Country Builders, for the past five years. Can you talk a bit about this experience?

SGD: There are three essential ingredients necessary to create a good building of any kind: a good architect, an open-minded client, and a really good builder. Absent even one of these ingredients and you do not get the poetry we have been discussing. Jay is a very good builder, by which I mean he brings experience, thoughtfulness and foresight to the table. Perhaps, even more importantly, he and Maurica, his wife and business partner, bring imagination.

In many ways, an architect is like a conductor of an orchestra. Without a good orchestra – the good client and contractor – he cannot sound good no matter what he does. Despite the rise of the “architects,” and the endless attention directed toward them personally, building is always a collaborative event.

JKL: You mention “playful” often in relation to your design. What do you mean by that? 

Conzett House, designed by Stephen Dietemann. Photo: Paul Puiia.
Conzett House, designed by Stephen Dietemann. Photo: Paul Puiia.

SGD: Important question. Everyone knows that an architect needs to be practical. Physics is unforgiving and every structure needs to be in alignment with those forces. Furthermore, weather is equally unforgiving – especially around here – so you ignore weather and water at your own risk. Furthermore, everyone is aware, I believe, that buildings need to conform to zoning regulations and building codes and that materials have limitations. These are the basics of shelter, and that is architecture’s first imperative. But what else is required?

If I had to say what is common to all good art, whether it be architecture, art, cinema, dance, music, or any other form, I’d say it was, finally, the unpredictable. For instance, I can predict within a few minutes of watching what each character will be saying and what they’ll be doing with pretty much any bad television comedy or drama. Same with most buildings, music, drama, or art. You’ve seen it all before many times and it doesn’t vary from the standard format. But good art is different. One way or another you are going to be surprised. A great building constantly surprises and delights. Vistas appear unexpectedly, colors and textures caress the eyes, rooms reveal themselves slowly or from out of nowhere. In short, they are full of wonder, or simply, wonderful. And regardless of how many years you live or work there, you will always be surprised again from time to time as the building seems to reinvent itself again and again.

Pablo Picasso once noted that the only people he was interested in were those who were doing what they did as children. Children are always curious, full of wonder and playful. They see the world new because for them it is new. The trick is to keep seeing it as new as we age. And that is the essence of play.

So, I hope that all my buildings function — and happily — in line with applicable physics, are as simple and inexpensive to maintain as possible, are in love with the sites they are located on, but equally I hope that they are playful.

JKL: If you could look into the future, what would be some of the key elements in design for successful small town growth? 

SGD: Interesting question. Probably the most important thing to do first for any town is to define what “growth” means. I mentioned New Canaan, Conn., earlier and they experienced lots of growth while I was there, but the town became increasingly homogenous and unaffordable for most people — in my opinion, that is a real problem. The result was less and less diversity and less and less opportunity for anyone without a great deal of money. In my opinion, this sort of “growth” strangled all the towns in that area, perhaps most notably, Westport. Great Barrington reminds me of Westport in the 1970’s. Like Westport then, Great Barrington has room for everyone from artists to hedge fund managers, but maintaining such a mix is difficult, especially as the United States balkanizes by wealth as it increasingly is doing. So again, if we here in the Berkshires can define growth to include as wide a swath of people as possible, it will remain the vibrant place Smithsonian Magazine saw when they dubbed it “Best Small Town in America” in 2012. I focus on Great Barrington because I live here, but the same is true for all South County. Equally important is that the larger communities like Pittsfield – or even Housatonic — not be excluded from the growth places like Great Barrington has experienced. I hope we define growth to include affordability, opportunity and, of course, a deep respect for the arts and the natural world that so obviously sustains us all here.

the south entryway to the Railroad House on North Plain Road. Photo: Paul Puiia.
The southern view of the entryway to the Railroad House on North Plain Road. Photo: Paul Puiia.

JKL: Are you opposed to a passenger railway line from here to Great Barrington? 

SGD: How could I be? I’m the guy who designed the house on Route 41 in Great Barrington generally referred to as the “Railroad Hous.” Seriously, I am a big fan of railroads and their return throughout the USA seems increasingly inevitable given climate change and the desperate need to cut down on greenhouse gases. Railroads make sense, but like all things, must be carefully considered and integrated into the fabric carefully.

JKL: What do you think of the new hotel proposed for downtown Great Barrington?

SGD: Interestingly, I am a member of the Design Advisory committee in town and the hotelier who is behind it presented it to us first. As is now the consensus – including the owner himself – that initial design was deeply flawed, based on the tenuous logic of tearing down the building to preserve it. Any reasonable man or woman would have to conclude that this approach, at the very least, violated both the spirit if not the letter of the governing regulations allowing more hotel rooms in Great Barrington. Fortunately, based on what I have last seen, they modified the design to better align with the town’s regulations by re-using large sections of the existing school. That said, I suggested at that initial presentation that the designers should take their cues from the renovation of the Iredale headquarters next door. In my opinion, that renovation balances the historic essence of the original building with playfully functional contemporary components.

JKL: Your exhibition, “Berkshire Now” at the Berkshire Museum, looks very interesting. Can you tell our readers the impetus behind this exhibition?

SGD: For a while now I have realized that almost everything I know about architectural design based on the many buildings I love and which have greatly affected my own sense of architectural design I have never visited in person. I know them entirely from the photographs architectural photographers took of them, outside and inside. That meant that these photographers were really influential for me and my sense of what constituted good design and ultimately my own design philosophy.

The south elevation of the Railroad House. Photo: Paul Puiia.
The south elevation of the Railroad House. Photo: Paul Puiia.

What buildings influenced me the most? A partial list includes: Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Falling Waters,” “Robie House”; Le Corbusier’s “Villa Savoye,” “the Chapel at Romchamps,” Chandigar, “Villa Stein”; Alvar Aalto’s “Helsinki House,”
“Vyborg Library”; Frank Gehry’s “Bilbao,” his “Santa Monica House,” to name but a few, and I have “visited” them all only in photographs. I was fortunate enough to stay in a house designed by Richard Neutra and visit other works by Wright such as Taliesin East and various houses he completed in Wisconsin, but they are the exceptions. I suspect the same is true of all architects. As I said previously, I design in poetry and build in prose, so I wanted to see what poetry these three architectural photographers – Peter Peirce, Jonathan Hankin, and Paul Puiia — would see in my house and then let them present that poetry as they wished. Of course, it was my hope that they would find the serendipity, the ineffable moments, the whimsy – in short, the poetry – of these houses, intertwined within their functional and physical forms. I was delighted to be able to set up two of the installations myself. Using photographs from Paul Puiia I set up the images as I would like to see them, incorporating the history of the project in the background image and using Paul’s images to give a virtual tour of the new houses I designed for each of these clients.

On May 6, at the reception for the exhibition we will be having a public presentation and discussion about this entire subject; I hope all will join us for that as well. I hope everyone comes to the exhibition and reception/discussion so they can decide for themselves how well we all did.

JKL: Do you have a funny moment with a client you would like to share?

SGD: A couple actually, but my favorite was when we were building the “Quinn House” in Great Barrington, (This house is not included in the exhibition at the Berkshire Museum, but can be seen at Dietemann’s website: www.sgddesign.com ) and Ed May, the Great Barrington building inspector, called me up laughing. Apparently, he had received several calls from people driving by that the contractor had constructed the roof upside down! The roof on that house is known as a “butterfly roof” and does look like an upside down gable roof, the typical roof you find around here. Still, it is instructive to note that because the roof design was unfamiliar it was assumed to be incorrect. In truth, properly engineered and insulated, this is an excellent roof for our region both externally where it allows the snow to act as an additional insulator and the angles allow for active solar or photovoltaic collectors if desired, and inside the upward directed roofs bring in lots of sun and create a sense of openness not achievable with any other roof design.

JKL: Being as successful as you are do you have any words of wisdom for anyone wanting to become an architect? 

SGD: My advice: carefully consider what you mean by – and how you measure — success. My definition is simply always doing what I love to do as an architect and artist. Do the kind of design that clearly reflects who you are and what you believe, collaborating with people you like and who share your vision and a builder you respect and trust. It is really that simple; in short, have fun. Play.

Equally important, don’t be afraid to politely turn down work that doesn’t fit the above criteria. Trust your gut on this decision; it’ll be best for everyone in the long run. Do this and you make some money, perhaps a lot, but most importantly, you will enjoy your life.

_____________

BerkshireNow: Stephen Dietemann, at the Berkshire Museum, March 5 through May 22, 2016. A reception and panel discussion will be held on Friday, May 6, from 5 to 8 p.m., in conjunction with Pittsfield’s First Fridays Artwalk, when the museum’s BerkshireNow is open to the public at no cost. The houses represented in this exhibition can be seen on the architect’s website at www.sgddesign.com .

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