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Space, light, materials, connections and concept

The Five Flements philosophy – Miles on Norman

We had just gotten back from a trip to the British Isles. Norman thought he was going to have a heart attack and wanted to see Europe before he died. He later found out that it was just anxiety.

Over the course of a nearly four-decade career, Norman Jaffe’s architectural philosophy evolved from sculptural to spiritual.

His early works were characterized by their setting in the landscape. The best of these houses combined the Japanese aesthetic Norman experienced during military service in Japan with the deep inspiration of Wright’s modernist vision.

With the success of these early works came bigger commissions and even more spectacular projects. It was no longer the avant-garde who wanted Jaffe houses, it was those who wanted to be avant-garde. By the 1980’s much of the work became ostentatious (or as noted by Paul Goldberger in his book Houses of the Hamptons, ‘vulgar and bombastic’). Many of these projects were an exercise in ego, as much the client’s as the architect’s.

The increasingly futile attempts to satisfy the neurotic fantasies of the nouveau riche pushed Norman in a new direction. He began studying eastern philosophy and traveled to India several times, immersing himself in a spiritual journey.

When the Jewish Center of the Hamptons announced that it was planning to build a new synagogue, Norman suddenly rediscovered his Judaism and tried to win the commission for the project. This was a critical turning point in his career.

But winning the commission was not so easily done. Every presentation he made to the board was turned down. After all, how could the architect of ego-palaces for the rich possibly design a proper spiritual space?

Desperate to break away from the cycle of unsatisfying residential commissions (which he commonly referred to as ‘pig-outs’), Norman persisted for the better part of two years. Eventually, when he offered to design the building for no fee, the board figured “what have we got to lose?” (best when intoned with a Jewish accent), and awarded him the project.

With the synagogue commission, Norman’s commitment to Judaism deepened. This in no way diminished the Hindu influence; to the contrary, while he found parallels between the two, in the end it was Sai Baba who had the most profound effect upon him.

The synagogue was a transformational experience, revealing to Norman that his true purpose was not to design houses for the wealthy. Starting with Gates of the Grove, Norman began to more seriously consider the philosophical aspects of his work and developed what he called the Five Elements of Architecture.

These elements are space, light, materials, connections and concept. Space is defined by light, which is manipulated and controlled with crafted materials and joined with connections to satisfy a purpose. Any work that did not adequately address all five of these aspects was doomed to failure.

The Five Flements philosophy is closely related to the bushido philosophy immortalized in Miyomoto Musashi’s classicThe Book of Five Rings (Go Rin No Sho), which Norman may have discovered during military service in Japan during the Korean War.

The Five Elements address our interaction with the physical world, and Norman spent years writing about and trying to further develop and explain these concepts.

Norman’s later houses, done after Gates of the Grove, clearly show his lack of interest in – and patience for – the trials and tribulations of residential architecture. The avant-garde film director and jazz musician clients of his early career had given way to morally bankrupt garmentos and mailing list moguls who didn’t understand or deserve what their wealth could do.

The Berrie house is an exception for several reasons. First, the fee enabled Norman to provide substantial funding to ICROSS, his favorite charity, helping justify the work for a higher cause. But just as important was the opportunity to further explore the kind of texture and detail, first realized at Gates of the Grove, that would become more fully developed in his next major project.

Retained as an design consultant on a new commercial building, Norman quickly wrested responsibility for the entire project away from the firm of Emery Roth & Sons, architect for the World Trade Center. The result was565 Fifth Avenue, a building that critic Paul Goldberger called the finest new building in New York, “Frank Lloyd Wright made sleek”.

Norman’s deep understanding of the spiritual power of architecture, first demonstrated at Gates of the Grove, is on full display here. That this is a commercial building does not diminish it’s powerful effect. 565 is the culmination of a lifetime of dedication and experience.

Surface texture is no longer applied, it is now an integral part and the natural result of the structure. Norman had rediscovered classical detail in architecture and modernized it in sculptural form with a masterful composition of materials. Here was the full realization of his Five Elements of Architecture.

The Five Elements are the ultimate and most meaningful distillation of Norman’s philosophy. I have found it a sound foundation on which to approach not just my own architectural design work but any and all design including furniture, graphics, media – indeed every creative endeavor. It is the basis for critical analysis of all design and more, in the way that Mushasi’s Go Rin No Shois studied in Harvard’s MBA program.

nfortunately, as 565 Fifth Avenue was being completed, Norman was suffering some serious personal problems. His deteriorating marriage was forcing him to relive the separation and subsequent death of his first wife, and he had evidence that the prostrate cancer he had been treated for in 1991 was recurring.

At the very pinnacle of his career, in declining health and with little emotional support at home, Norman chose to end his own life. He lived on his own terms, and it was on his own terms that he ended his life.

I like to think that had Norman shared his troubles with me, instead of trying to protect me from them, things might have been different. But one can never really know the pain and suffering of another, we can only have compassion for all.

Alastair Gordon’s Romantic Modernist, The Life and Work of Norman Jaffe Architect, provides a fairly comprehesive but somewhat disjointed overview of my father’s work and whitewash of his death.

Miles Jaffe