Famed Designer Peter Sollogub and his Iconic Eye for Groundbreaking Design
By Suzy Marden
Peter Sollogub is a gifted designer whose work spans residences, aquariums, museums, sports, retail and entertainment. He received his BFA from Rhode Island School of Design and a Masters in Architecture from Harvard School of Design. Peter has taught at Harvard, MIT, B.A.C., RISD, Virginia Tech and other universities.
Peter, along with his C7A project team: Timothy Mansfield, Principal; Jan Brenner, Sr. Associate Designer; Hilary Mateev, Associate Designer; Chris Muskopf, Associate Designer; Media Production and Design Firm of Cortina Productions, McLean VA. May be best known locally for the Hall at Patriots Place and CBS Scene in Foxborough. Beyond their impressive work here in Boston, this dynamic team of designers continue to create “break the mold” concepts for their clients, winning numerous awards. Their designs connect experience. After a month of chasing Peter across the U.S. and China he returned to Boston and we met at The Liberty Hotel, it just seemed so fitting. Cambridge Seven designed the Liberty Hotel, a landmark property in Boston.
So Peter, how did all of this begin for you? Were you a kid growing up in Boston fixated on buildings and how you could improve them?
No not at all. Growing up in Newton back in the ‘50s, I lived in a 2 family house with my Godmother upstairs and we were on the bottom. This was my world until I turned 7 and my mother said we were going to move 3 doors down into our own house. It was very traumatic, like an earth shattering moment for me. Nothing was ever going to be the same again and then I met Phoebe. My mother wanted to redesign our new house that we were moving into, so she took me to Cambridge to Design Research, which had just opened and was in the business of selling great design. Phoebe was a Designer at I.D. and worked with my mother. When I met Phoebe she gave me little cut out pieces of cardboard representing furniture that were all down to scale and she said you can design your own room. It was a real lightening rod moment where something clicked for me. I didn’t realize it until many years later, but I think that first moment with Phoebe influenced me to play with space, materials and color. I never did well in school but always liked to draw.
That must have been some extraordinary drawing you did in your youth to get into a school like RISD, so what led you to Architecture and Design once there?
In high school I wasn’t a very good student in anything but art and geometry. After my freshman year at RISD, I brought all my projects home and I saw my mother displaying them on the dining room table. I asked her what she was doing and she said she invited a “real” Architect to come by and review my work. He came over and walked around the table and kept saying: “This is interesting, interesting”, of course that’s a polite way of saying he didn’t think much of my work. Before he left he had this to say: “When you grow up it won’t be like this, it’s all about costs, permitting, structure, and the concrete stuff”. I remember thinking as he was saying this, to never, never, never grow up. If you start thinking about all the “Whys” you will never get to think “why not.” I like to go into every project and say, “Let’s pretend.”
That sounds a little bit like Peter Pan, What if you run into a client that doesn’t communicate like that?
I was working for a client here in Boston to do the interior space of his home. We met at his current home and I asked him, “What do you want from the space? What do you want to do in it?” He couldn’t answer that question so we walked through his home and I kept thinking this place feels like Barney’s, it had no life force and I was not getting anything from him to help define what he wanted. Finally we sat down and I asked again, “What do you want?” He got up walked across the room and put on some Latin music on and said, “I want it to be like this”. I realized in that moment I had been asking the wrong questions. He taught me something very valuable. He taught me to listen to his heartbeat more to find out “what do you want your home to feel like?” Think about it, we are talking about a one’s home and that’s up there at the top of ones most important things. The reality is we’re dealing with place making, space, color, light, the sequence of coming and going. It wasn’t about my client not communicating it, it was about me understanding the client’s feelings. It’s easy to make a model, or drawing to communicate, but we’re talking something else altogether. You have to build a bridge to that energy, that magic where the client’s feeling are recognized and I can build it out from that place. What winds up happening is the space has a kind of heartbeat. In my experience finding this intangible helps you be a better designer.
Okay we have to talk about the Hall at Patriots Place. It has been called groundbreaking for changing the way we think about museums and sports exhibits. It has won numerous awards and was constantly being described by ESPN: “I’ve seen enough halls of fame to know what a great one looks like. The better ones I always return to. I’ve visited the Pro Football Hall of Fame, National Baseball Hall of Fame, Hockey Hall of Fame and International Boxing Hall of Fame. I’ve attended induction ceremonies at most. But the best I’ve seen belongs to the New England Patriots [The Hall at Patriot Place].” What led you, the C7A team to dare to think so far outside the “box?”
Firstly, this was really personal to me, I love Patriots football and I’ve been a big fan since I was a kid. This was a special opportunity for us. When we first met with Robert Kraft, I remember he said 2 words to us that are forever profound and magical; “Be Bold.” Those words were magic for us. The Hall started out as a metaphor, a collision of all the forces of football coming together as a team and a family. When you go there, it appears to be this wacky place, very atypical architecture, full of angular forms where you won’t find a straight wall in the entire place. Our intention was not to create a space to be “different” it was about being authentic to Patriots Football. It was not about telling the Patriots story. We wanted visitors to experience it. The best part about the great museum is that nobody is telling you what to think, or feel, rather it is a personal and emotional experience that you are having because of it; it just unlocks itself as you walk through. We partnered exhibits with a dynamic original space that dances together holistically and authentically that allows the Patriots Football story to unfold in it.
Did Patriots Place lead to the San Francisco 49-ers Museum that you have been working on and is nearing completion?
The S.F. 49ers upon visiting Patriots Place asked us for a proposal for their own Museum. We were selected. I want to mention that these are very different projects. The 49ers have different mystique from that of the Patriots. The 49ers mystique has much to do with their history, their west coast offence, their extraordinary quarterbacks, coaches, particularly the legendary Bill Walsh. All of this combined made for a very different solution for the 49ers. This project was much more fluid, in fact the C7A team likes to call it “Liquid Architecture,” where the space spins around you like the motion of a forward pass and like the offense of the team. It is a very different song.
Peter, how do you arrive at these lofty and visceral places when problem solving?
If you do not have music, or poetry in your response to problem solving you can’t make it appear afterwards, you can’t tack it on later. You must look for it in the process, you have to design from your own inside out. You can’t grow up, you have to keep your eyes, ears, mind wide open and let things happen. A project will always plant something inside you and you have to let it grow, feel it, breathe it, dream it.
What is your favorite project?
I went to Harvard with I. M. Pei’s son and when his father came to speak at Harvard he was asked that same question and his answer was, “The next one.” I think there is a lot of truth to that. I get very excited about current work like with the 49ers. I try and approach each project as that is my favorite.
In closing, who in the creative realm here in Boston would you like to see me interview and why?
Ron Lawner. Ron is an extraordinary person, both extremely creative in finding message and meaning for a client and its brand. Ron does it in a way that is also gentle and sensitive that is his way. Ron is a very unique guy, he is very true. I would like to know more about his process.