I can't think of a better title for this exemplary monograph on the life and work of architect Norman Jaffe than Romantic Modernist – the perfect two-word summation of the artist's vision and style. I hadn't heard of him until The New York Times ran an article last August in its "House & Home" section, discussing an addition being made to one of his classic Long Island summer houses. The photos that accompanied the piece were my first exposure to the grand sweep of his work and made it inevitable that I'd get a copy of the book, which is the work of architecture critic Alastair Gordon, and has been published with great care by the estimable Monacelli Press. I wasn't disappointed when it arrived in the office; quite the contrary, I was bowled over.
When you approach someone like Jaffe, it's all about being enthralled. He led an exciting life and had a masterful style from the moment he tackled his first commission back in the 1960s. As Gordon portrays him, he was remarkably prolific and, right from the start, certain of himself and his abundant talents. (In Jaffe's words, he strove through his architecture to demonstrate "the contrast between the mystery of the natural world and the security of known geometry.") The number of photos that fill the book attest to what a remarkably handsome man he was – stylish and dashing, almost movie-star gorgeous, especially in his younger years – as well as the adventurous beauty of his many buildings.
And it seems that Jaffe never denied himself much either, especially when it came to the kind of blandishments that good looks and swift professional success can lavish upon such a man. A string of gorgeous women appear to have been at his beck and call, and he lived life to the hilt in the particularly monied 1960s' manner that was also in evidence alongside the doings and undoings of the counterculture. (Jaffe did, at last, marry and have children, but not until the late 1980s.)
Then there's the matter of his death. One morning in the summer of 1993, he went for a swim off Bridgehampton, N.Y., as he'd done so many other mornings, but this time he didn't return. His clothes were found in a neat pile, as he left them every day. The manner of his demise merely contributed another layer to his considerable mystique.
But Jaffe was not just the "playboy architect" that this summation might suggest. Gordon credits him not only with a commanding style, but with credible and forthright ideas about what architecture could contribute to the world.
Jaffe is said to have designed at least 50 houses in the Hamptons area of Long Island, and those pictured in Romantic Modernist appear to be profound conversations between the structures and the terrain that surrounds them. The architect had a particular fondness for designing houses, which he considered "deep, rich, sonorous, stirring, melodic, dreamlike, romantic journeys."
Gordon notes that for Jaffe, "architecture – especially residential architecture – was never a detached, scientific process … . He believed in its transformational powers, much like Frank Lloyd Wright, who wrote of the 'fire burning deep in the masonry of the house itself,' and was convinced that domestic architecture stood at the very core of the American experience. [Jaffe] was open to every imaginable influence, from Piranesi and Kabuki theater to Mayan temples, potato barns and musical theory – all synthesized through his own peculiar alchemy. 'Norman's vision of architecture was as an experience of theater and emotion,' his son, Miles, said. 'What does this thing make you feel like? How do you respond to it?' A former associate put it another way: 'He believed that architecture could be a kind of salvation, a magic crystal … some kind of Pythagorean alignment, and somehow, out of this geometry, you could open up a door to the other place.' "
The author writes that Jaffe was also fond of quoting the Taoist phrase "hug the earth, embrace the sky." Most Jaffe buildings, especially the many highlighted in Romantic Modernist, seem to take off from this notion, twisting it or embracing it or soaring away from it. This is true even of the simpler, but powerful, Gates of the Grove Synagogue that Jaffe completed late in his brief but intense life.