Peter Blake, Architect and Critic, Dead at 86

A witty and informed voice in design is stilled.

Peter Blake, FAIA died on December 5th near his home in Branford, Connecticut. He was 86. Although he designed or built almost 50 modern buildings, Blake is most widely known for his writings on modern architecture as it developed and matured in the United States. He produced hundreds of articles and more than a dozen books on architecture and was the first to write notably about the 20th century’s most prominent architects including I.M. Pei and Frank Gehry. His writings appeared in magazines of the era including the venerable Architectural Forum, which carried his byline first in 1942; he served as the magazine’s editor in chief from 1964 to 1972. Blake considered himself an architect and a writer, but not a journalist.

Blake’s writing style set him apart. His architectural insights have an informal, personal tone, which often reflect his wit. In his 1978 book Form Follows Fiasco: Why Modern Architecture Hasn’t Worked, Blake wrote, “I do not think that it is essential for architecture critics to know how to build – any more than it is essential for professional birdwatchers to know how to lay eggs – but it helps.” His commentaries endeared him not only to architects but also to those outside the field.

The architect’s best known completed project is the “Pinwheel House” built in 1955, as a vacation home in Water Mill, New York for his own family. Over the course of his career and as recent as this year, he continued to receive inquiries about the design and construction of the house. Although not intended as a prefab house, it’s easy to see why so many thought it was. As Blake described it, the 24 foot square house had walls “on overhead tracks, like barn doors which can slide out into the landscape and slide shut.” He further suggested “the house can be adjusted to any orientation or combination of views.” These pre-air condition features, built to the local climate, make the small house hugely instructive to architects practicing sustainable design.

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Among Blake’s peers were artists and other architects. For his friend Jackson Pollock he designed the “Ideal Museum” in 1949. The plan called for mirrored walls to reflect Pollock’s paintings—the project was never built. Earlier this year Blake recalled visiting his friend Philip Johnson when the Glass House was under construction on what became the famous Johnson compound in New Canaan, Connecticut. Blake, who designed the kitchen counters and cabinets for the house, remembered climbing to the top of the steel structure and noted how much it swayed before the glass was installed.

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