The Builder/Architect Tradition

THOMAS MACGREGOR – The Builder/Architect Tradition

Based in a renovated Booklyn carriage house, design firm THOMAS MACGREGOR takes clients from initial concept through final selection of furniture and art. They have developed a process, methodology and attitude towards client relationships radically differing from most firms. To sum up MacGregor’s underlying philosophy: Architects are builders and builders are architects. Several of the world’s most interesting architects – Renzo Piano in Italy; Tadao Ando in Japan; and Peter Zumthor in Switzerland – have taken this approach to design with incredibly inventive results that couldn’t have been achieved without a fusion of many collaborative processes. THOMAS MACGREGOR is following in that tradition.

The builder/architect is neither tradesman, engineer, nor architect, but a combination of these processes having many of its roots set in the past – from Renaissance architects to coastal New England builders who were inventive out of necessity. Tom MacGregor, the firm’s founder and design principal, has a passion for building both mathematical in its rigor and religious in its visual poetry. His designs contain involved series of intricate decisions reworked in many different forms to suit a client’s needs. The kind of boy who took things apart and put them back together, MacGregor has a working knowledge of the engineering of everything from building street racing hot rods, post and beam barns, his involvement in NASA projects as a design engineer, to the paintings, sculpture, and large scale site-specific outdoor sculptures he created with artist Richard Artschwager.

In 1985 an interest in painting and sculpture brought him to New York City. He went to work preparing and installing exhibitions at the Leo Castelli Gallery, continuing to make his own art and fabricating other artist’s sculpture. A love of, and work with the exacting minimalist sculptures of Donald Judd and Richard Serra led to an understanding of the distinction between a plain empty space and an elegant empty space – a very important factor in his firm’s aesthetic.

Taking a hiatus from the New York art world in the mid 90’s, he returned to the coast of Maine, the location of many enjoyable summers as a child. Setting out to carve his own space within the sacred geometry of classic New England structures, he began with a nineteenth century rambling saltwater farmhouse on eight acres in Pemaquid. Stripping it down to its essence and opening it on its side like an accordion, he brought light into and views from the house with corner windows and large picture units. There is even a full water view from the cellar study, the windows flanking a raised fireplace. Seen from the water, the house lies snug in the landscape as if it had been there exactly as it is for over a hundred years, like Martin Heidegger’s often-sited bridge that, “gathers the earth as landscape around a stream”.

MacGregor’s uncanny sense of order is evident in his reconstruction of a nineteenth century post and beam schoolhouse. Purchased from a neighboring town, it was then disassembled and moved to a clearing he’d created in the woods on his property. The original builders most likely used a copybook, transmitting the geometric proportions of ancient Greeks to Yankee carpenters.

Put together in the old manner using posts and beams joined with handmade pegs, the result is a handsome rectangle having stylized Doric columns and a classical pediment. Over the course of a summer, MacGregor and a small crew reconstructed the building, an experience that furthered his quest to understand the soul of building. Subtly shifting the basic form to suit his needs for a shop and studio, the second floor was rebuilt using steel girders, eliminating the need for interior structural support, and separate boy’s and girl’s entrances were removed in favor of double doors. Like the farmhouse, the building seems as if it has existed on site unchanged for the over one hundred and fifty years of its structure’s age.

The schoolhouse also led to his first commission. A family spending their summer down the road stopped by to admire the building as it was nearing completion, asking to meet the architect. MacGregor laughed and explained that it was an old structure that he had moved to the site. The family was in process of purchasing a small ocean front property – actually two pseudo log cabins, both uninsulated and in disrepair, but structurally sound. They desired a home with the look of the schoolhouse, bringing light into the interior as the farmhouse had accomplished. They also had a very low budget. MacGregor stripped the roofs and interiors, then built over and onto the exterior walls, leaving the log siding underneath for additional support. The results are two simplified white cubes much like Joel Shapiro sculptures. In the interiors, light from the sky and reflected light off the water come in through the day as if they were wooden boats moored on the water.

MacGregor treats a New York townhouse or nineteenth century factory loft building with the same care as the Maine farmhouses, homes, and cottages he began with. Stripping them to the core, he finds the heart of a structure allowing a new space to evolve within a re-engineered shell. A stickler for straight lines, flat floors, plumb walls and maximum usage, MacGregor first finds flaws and corrects them. For a loft in SoHo where his client asked for quiet, he researched the existing literature on acoustics and noise prevention, developing solutions combining standard processes with his own ideas. When entering the loft, all street noise has been so sucessfully eliminated that you feel the sensation of a decompression chamber: total peace and relaxation. A fold out guest room including a queen size fold down bed is completely hidden when not in use. Easing down with very little pressure the bed cantilevers from the wall. The loft seems wonderfully open thanks to these and other space saving engineering feats – desks and electronic equipment are tucked away in elegantly designed recesses, gliding out for use. Sliding panels and walls divide the rooms without seeming to interrupt the space, allowing the client to unfold and fold his home according to his needs.

Inventiveness in a MacGregor dwelling is the accumulated result of thousands of details carefully engineered with a focus on the overall spirit of the home. Quality and precision are guiding forces. In one SoHo loft, the shower recreates the joy of showering outdoors with an enlarged footprint and natural materials – teak planks provide the flooring and the drain is recessed underneath in a stainless steel pan – water can’t pool around your feet. The newest version of the same idea incorporates a warm air blower from below, further increasing the pleasure of a perfect shower.

MacGregor’s builder / architect approach is not so much a matter of “isn’t it great there’s someone bothering to do things this way”, as it is a matter of this approach simply makes sense. As a consequence of this attention to detail from beginning to the end of projects, in both design and construction, the dwellings have a solidity that evokes confidence and security. They bring to mind the poetry of a simple well-built house on a high cliff almost surrounded by spruce, and concurrently the quiet elegance of Craftsman and Japanese architecture. It has been said that a house is in its heart an extension of a grove of trees brought into a practical framework. As Rainer Maria Rilke rhapsodized in his 1908 poem, the lovely Evening in Skane: “What a wonderful building, moving inside itself, held up by itself, forming figures, giant wings, canyons, and high mountains before the first star and suddenly, there: a door so far off maybe only birds have ever felt that kind of distance…” In the case of Tom MacGregor, his projects are also works of refined art and engineering.

Jeffrey Hogrefe December 2010