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An Interview With Robert van Summern

On a Wilton, Connecticut street filled with colonial homes, one very special home stands out: a towering, seven-level, mid-century modern masterpiece. Referred to as “Fort Apache” by The New York Times in the 1960s, the family home is one Robert van Summern’s most notable architectural creations. 

One week ago, we called van Summern and interviewed him about mid-century modern architecture and his life as an office planner and architect. 

 

What are some of the buildings you’re most proud of designing?

“I’m most proud of our home which I did in a tower-like style.”

a large red chair in a room

What inspired you to use the tower-like style when building a home for your family in Wilton, Connecticut?

“Well, I always loved courtyards, so I tried to capture space by putting four equal towers on the four corners of the site, and in the courtyard we had a pool. I did it for my children and my wife. I’m also a lover of Greek architecture, so the building is symmetrical on the east-west axis. It had seven levels because it was on the side of a hill. 

Each of the kids enjoyed the glass enclosure to look at the pool. The kids would jump off of the roof into the pool. It was a well known house in Wilton.” 

a black sign with white text above a snow covered street a view of a building

What’s one of the biggest challenges you faced in your career as an architect?

“A lot of them. When you’re an architect, you have to struggle at a lot of things. Starting a practice out of college wasn’t easy. I had to quit my job to get my practice going, and that was difficult. Finding clients all the time is difficult, too.

I came from Michigan after graduating from the architectural school at the University of Michigan. I also played for the football team, and that wasn’t easy. I played halfback, and I graduated with honors when I got out of school in 1950.

I was in WWII in the navy, as a navy pilot flyer, and I met a few sports coaches. So I was offered a scholarship to play at Notre Dame. I got out in 1945 and I went to Notre Dame for engineering. I thought engineering was dull, so I ultimately left Notre Dame and went to Michigan because I heard they had a good architecture school. It took me 6 years to get my degree. It was a long haul.”

 

What’s your favorite aspect of mid-century modern architecture?

“Planes of space. I studied under the students from Mies van der Rohe’s school and his proteges were teachers of mine at the University of Michigan. That’s how I got to know the bauhaus style in Germany. It’s big on changing heights of spaces, not being stuck in doorways. Less was more in those days.”

a close up of a red building a room with a sink and a mirror

Who is one of your architectural heroes, and why?

“I don’t really have any heroes except Mies van der Rohe. I admired architects such as Corbousier, who designed the United Nations building, but Mies was a fine architect.”

 

(Photos graciously provided by Kristin Mauck, daughter of Robert van Summern)

Article by Carly Civello, Histoury Marketing and PR Intern