Jake Alspector, AR’72

(This article first appeared in the October 2012 CUAA Newsletter)


 Jacob Alspector, AR’72, is Principal of Alspector Architecture. Jake has been a guest critic and lecturer at architecture schools across the country including Cooper Union, Harvard, Pratt, Columbia, Syracuse NYIT and CCNY, where he is currently an Associate Professor. He has received Cooper Union’s Presidential Citation and is a member of the CU Alumni Hall of Fame. As the President of the CU Alumni Association, he initiated the John Hejduk Award in Architecture in 2003 in memory of the longtime dean of the Irwin Chanin School of Architecture.  MaryAnn Nichols, A ’68 another past President of the CU Alumni Association, spoke with him about architecture and his remarkable career.

What made you want to be an architect?

As a boy I was interested in drawing, painting and building all kinds of things. During the hot summer middays in Brooklyn I found sanctuary in my local public library since I enjoyed reading and it was, during the 50’s and 60’s one of the few places that were air-conditioned. I saw a new book that attracted me – it had a cover that looked like a space station. It turned out to be a new book about Frank Lloyd Wright written by his widow after his recent death. It featured one of his magical nighttime renderings on the cover and through it I discovered architecture. I found out that Brooklyn Technical High School had an Architectural Program which I enrolled in. I continued my studies at The Cooper Union, which aside from City College, was the only school I could afford and now many years later, here I am an architect and principal of my own firm, Alspector Architecture.
What pieces of architecture had a powerful effect on you?
I grew up during the “Post War Era” and a few of the buildings in Manhattan – the Guggenheim, Lever House, Seagrams and the UN – were rare examples of modernist architecture. They were just so staggering and so different from anything else. They intrigued me with their promise of a new age, a new “space age” so to speak. After discovering that Frank Lloyd Wright book, I visited the Guggenheim and was floored by it. Ironically many years later I was luckily in the right place at the right time to work on its renovation and expansion.
So George Costanza wasn’t the architect behind that after all?
Relatives and friends actually sent me the videotape of that funny Seinfeld episode. I also remember the 1964 World’s Fair in NYC – it cemented my wonder at modern ideas and the utopian bright future unfolding. Some important 60’s shows at MoMA of Mies van der Rohe, Louis I. Kahn and other architects increased my excitement about architecture further. This was an opportunity to have a vocation that looked like a lot of fun, doing things I loved and that had so much creative possibility.
How fitting that you came full circle from admiring the Guggenheim to actually renovating and expanding it.
Yes indeed – it was a serendipitous and a somewhat daunting responsibility.
Who are the people, heroes or role models that influenced you?
I knew I was getting a pretty good education at Cooper. Really interesting stuff was being taught. My most influential professors at that time (before a lot of them had become famous), included John Hejduk, Richard Stein, Richard Meier, Richard Henderson, Ricardo Scofidio, Peter Eisenman and Charles Gwathmey – with whom I worked for twenty-five years. There were two different teaching styles, one that encouraged students to find their own way and one that relied on emulation. And of course teachers like John Hejduk, who was so infectiously passionate, so interested in encouraging and nurturing students.

Guggenheim Museum Expansion and Renovation


How does it feel to see an architectural project reach completion? 
It is something that I guess I never get tired of. It’s part of the narcotic of being an architect and making dreams come true, developing and implementing the vision for a new or transformed place for human activity. It is very intense for a long period of time. And when it’s done it’s really amazing to see something that you’ve helped conceive actually there!
When it is finished and occupied – that is really fun. I love seeing people using my facilities – that’s what is so rewarding about doing educational and cultural architecture for the public rather than for the individual. I sometimes visit my projects in a voyeuristic sense and hang out and observe and feel what the place is actually like – this is critical for all architects to do. The psychology of architecture and space and the subtle, nuanced effects on our holistic perceptions and emotions has become more and more important to me.
How is the new Grace Church High School coming? 
Grace High School is now the latest educational neighbor on Cooper Square. We have a multiple phase, multi-year project. They have opened the first phase and it’s a totally new entity for Grace. It is definitely a dream project – creating a new educational institution from scratch. Of course being right on Cooper Square is so resonant personally for me. I can still remember the permeating smell of bird seed being roasted at 4 PM every day at the Hartz Mountain’s facility, which is what occupied this building when I was a student at Cooper. We have implemented some progressive approaches to educational design, which include encouraging student and faculty collaboration in ‘third’ spaces such as hallways, stairs and other normally transitional areas.
What challenges are associated with re-purposing existing buildings for use as a high school?
Many of the challenges of renovating what once was a row of seven 1850’s townhouses converted into a factory, were met by focusing on and optimizing the psycho-spatial effects of architecture on the buildings inhabitants.  Architecture should support human needs including the need to learn and build human connections.
What does it take to be an architect?
One must have an obsession and a driving passion for it. You have to love it. It is so hard, it takes a long time to learn how to do it, to go to school, to get a license and to learn and stay on top of your craft. You need to have certain fundamental talents and abilities to think spatially, to draw and to build things and to love that kind of craft making, even though so much of it these days is digital, which is a little bit of a different skill. Technology aside I actually think that in addition to some basic talents and psychological makeup, passion, empathy and drive are most important. I remember John Hejduk would walk around the class making statements, one of which was “you have to have “stick-to-it-ive-ness”. “Architecture is an old person’s profession”.  We were instilled with the idea that this (architecture) was a long distance marathon thing, not easy, not quick, and you would not make lots money, but you could get lots of gratification and make some real cultural contributions.
How has the practice of architecture changed since you first began?
I think the architect’s role has changed with the digital realm. The world available through our devices and screens competes with our immediate physical environment for our divided attention and awareness.  For many people, architecture is considered a two-dimensional, image conscious, non-spatial affair – not something of tactile, sensual, visceral reality. In addition as architects, our relationship to hand drawing has dramatically changed – eye and brain to hand, pencil and paper is in danger of becoming for many, no longer a primary analytic and synthetic tool to understanding and manipulating the world around us.
Do you still think that architecture is an exciting field and would you recommend it for current high school students?

Architecture is more exciting than ever. Emerging digital technologies present so many new and virtually limitless possibilities not only of form, but also of places to work. International, technology enabled collaboration is becoming increasingly common. Historically, in tough economic times such as these, architecture is one of the first industries to be affected and one of the last to recover. Nevertheless, as populations and needs keep increasing and older buildings and infrastructure need renovation and transformation, there is much work to be done not only here at home but worldwide.

Additional projects by Jacob Alspector:

Grace School:  http://www.alspectorarchitecture.com/gcshs.htm
Utah Valley University:  http://www.alspectorarchitecture.com/uvsc.htm
NPAP lobby: http://www.alspectorarchitecture.com/npap.htm
Bobst Library Lower Level: http://www.alspectorarchitecture.com/bobstGPC.htm
Bobst Library: http://www.alspectorarchitecture.com/nyu.htm