Lee Skolnick

Creating Epiphanies

LHS_headshot_PhotoBy_Ralph GibsonWhen he’s not busy lecturing, writing or working on another design masterpiece, acclaimed architect Lee H. Skolnick might find himself travelling…often to his vacation home on Rendezvous Bay, Anguilla. Widely published, his portfolio is made up of works from children’s museums to luxury vacation villas. Ani Villas, Kamique, and his own Songbird Villa are among the projects he’s worked on in Anguilla.

Currently designing the new Cuisinart Golf Resort hotel, we met up with the award-winning architect on a recent visit to Anguilla and he opens up about his love of the island, his design philosophy and who he’d invite to dinner.

You’ve done a number of projects in the Caribbean and Anguilla, in particular. How did you get here?
I came here to play at MoonSplash in 1991. A friend invited me, he was a friend of Bankie (Banx) and he said to me “I’m going to play at a music festival in the Caribbean”. He was a guy who was a client of mine, but also someone I played music with. He said “You wanna come down and play at the music festival?” and I said “Yeah!”
MoonSplash was held on Sandy Island at the time, there was no Dune Preserve and we had this crazy, great time and I fell in love with the island. For many years I came back and stayed at the old Rendezvous Bay Hotel. Then my wife and I had kids and we brought them with us as well.

What does Architecture mean to you?
I think architecture is a form of communication. What an architect does is communicate to people about their own lives, what’s important to them and what’s unique about places. I call it design-as-interpretation. It’s up to the designer to try and unearth the narrative and use it as an inspiration for making decisions. If you look back at history, architecture is how we understand cultures, how they lived and what they believed in. That’s our responsibility – to embody how different people live and how they respond to their environments. It’s not just about making a place, that’s not hard, I think we have a higher calling…and it is to be responsible communicators of our culture. My job is to interpret hopes, desires and interests into a place for you to live. It will be beautiful if it is truthful. It’s not going to be beautiful if you like asymmetry, or pink, or you like this version or that. It is about finding a truth, and then interpreting it through the architecture.

What do people misunderstand about what you do?
I think the perception is that it is primarily a technical profession, but the technical aspects are just a means to an end. People might ask, ‘How much is it going to cost me to get a set of plans?’ If they’re asking me that question then we aren’t the right match. If you’re not interested in taking our kind of journey, then there are lots of other persons out there that can do what you’re asking. I’ve made choices about how to live my life, and it’s about helping you to create something that will have value. It doesn’t have to cost you more money; its not about money.

What do you think the post-recession future holds for architects and architecture?
I think, first of all, our clients will be much more budget-conscious than they were five years ago. I think the other thing is we really have to partner with our clients in making them realize how they benefit from our expertise in terms of value, not just in terms of beauty and design aesthetics. People hire us and think that architects just cost money, but if we’re well-trained, and well-experienced, they’re going to save money. We need to come together with the builder and the client as a team and figure out how to work collaboratively to reach the right solution. Architects cannot afford to just be seen as Eiffel Tower-designers, we have to be seen as problem solvers. I’ve never had a client, after we were done, misunderstand the value of what we do, it is up-front that we have to prove our point.

What other cities/places do you like for architectural, or other reasons?
I’ve travelled a lot and one of my biggest influences earlier on, about 30 years ago, was Japan. It wasn’t the actual, physical buildings, but their approach to design. That sort of lightness, delicacy, the relationships to nature; it had a tremendous influence on me. Later, I did a grand tour of Europe and seeing all the buildings we’d studied in architecture school: The Parthenon, Pantheon, Chartres Cathedral (Notre Dame). When young people come to my office for advice because they want to become architects, I say to them “Travel; see the world, see what makes great architecture great; see how people live and understand how architecture is a reflection of that place and time”. If you don’t understand that, you can’t do architecture. To me, the great cities, Rome, Paris, Istanbul, Shanghai, Kyoto, you need to see these places; I’d love to live in all of them, but the compromise is that I live in New York, so I can get to all of them pretty easily.

What other projects are you working on now?
We’re actually in Anguilla now meeting with Cuisinart Resort about designing the golf course hotel. We’re doing an amazing house in the Hamptons on the beach; we’re designing a museum in Bulgaria, and we recently started working on an exhibition about gold for a museum on Wall Street. We’ve also just started a children’s museum in Tel Aviv (Israel), as well as some apartments and town-houses in New York. A lot of it is very recent because the last few years have been very slow. Our firm, at the high point, had about 46 people and we were down below 20 not that long ago. We’re now stepping up our staffing slowly. During the downturn, we did everything we could to keep our senior members because these people have ‘firm (company) memory’ that you can’t replace, they’ve put in their time and we wanted to pay them back for their loyalty.

If you could have anyone, living or dead, over for dinner, which five would be at the table?
Leonardo da Vinci, Mozart, Albert Einstein, Plato…then there would be a toss up between Jesus, Buddha or Mohammed. That would be a tough one.

No living person?
No! I can see them any time. One of the great privileges of my profession is that I’ve actually gotten meet, or have dinner with, a lot of people that I would have really wanted to: great thinkers, cultural and political figures; it’s kind of a combination of the cultural work that we do. Being in New
York, you get to meet very interesting people and have interesting conversations. That’s what makes life very rich.

What is the one word you’d use to sell Lee Skolnick?
[He pauses for a few seconds.]
Epiphanies. That’s what I try to create. I’ve written a lot about epiphanies and the dictionary’s definition is ‘an understanding of different things that come together to create a revelation’. It’s not that you’re creating something new, it’s about helping people realize something that they didn’t realize before…to rethink and recombine it into something useful.

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