In Norman's Wake: the Rise and Fall of the Hamptons

Text / Alastair Gordon

Images / Courtesy of Gordon de Vries Studio

‘FAMED ARCHITECT VANISHES’ — New York Post, August 23, 1993.

Early on the morning of August 19, 1993, Norman Jaffe drove down Ocean Road and turned into the cul-de-sac development called Sam’s Creek, one of the architect’s most critically acclaimed projects, a cluster of houses with hovering roofs set between undulating earthen berms. Jaffe parked his beaten-up Mercedes Benz in the driveway of a friend’s house and walked the short distance to the beach. He left his clothes in a little pile and ran into the surf as he did almost every morning. This time, however, he never came back. Friends called mutual friends and wondered what might have happened. Others gathered and organised search parties. Police crews combed the beach from Westhampton to Montauk, but found nothing. A helicopter hovered over the point of disappearance, flattened dune grass and blew sand into billowing clouds.

Next morning, New York-area TV stations and newspapers carried the story on their front pages: ‘FAMED ARCHITECT VANISHES’, read a bold-faced headline in the New York Post — ‘Police are baffled...’; while New York Magazine ran a sensational story called ‘The Vanishing’. Helicopters continued to fly up and down the coast for several more days, but Jaffe’s body was never found, and his reputation for being a daring but sometimes difficult, absent-minded architect, for being Hollywood handsome and something of a ladies’ man, combined with a lack of evidence, opened the door to wild and rather sordid speculation. Did he drown accidentally or was he murdered? Did the troubled architect fake his own death or was it a great white shark? An associate pointed out that Le Corbusier had died by drowning in the Mediterranean, a probable suicide, and something like that might have appealed to Jaffe’s sense of symmetry.

Beyond the personal tragedy, Jaffe’s disappearance marked a critical turning point in Hamptons culture, the end of an era of carefree summer living, open beaches and experimental architecture, the end of a certain innocence that had held out against a more corrupt era of real estate exploitation, traffic-clogged roadways, over-scaled McMansions and overexposure in the national media, the ultimate insult being the Kardashian-featuring reality TV show Kourtney and Khloé Take the Hamptons.

Artists had first started coming to eastern Long Island in the late 19th century to paint the rustic windmills, white-sand beaches and rolling dunes. After the Second World War, avant-garde painters like Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell came to live year-round. Motherwell collaborated with émigré French designer Pierre Chareau to create a Nissen hut-style house in East Hampton that was completed in 1947, an ingenious collage of industrial ready-mades and handcrafted elements. The artists were followed by young architects like Peter Blake, George Nelson and Andrew Geller, who were equally inspired by the sea-brewed light, low-lying landscape and open vistas, and the area soon became an incubator of experimental design.

German-born Blake visited Pollock in his Springs studio in 1949 while Pollock was at work on one of his all-over drip paintings. ‘The sun was shining when I walked into his studio, shining in and into the paintings,’ recalled Blake. ‘It was like walking into the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles — dazzling, incredible!’ The architect was inspired, vowing to push his own work away from European-style Functionalism towards a more intuitive kind of expression.

‘I was sure that a similar architectural energy would soon manifest itself all around us,’ he wrote. ‘We felt we were ready.’ But ready for what?

Pollock stretched his canvases on the floor and worked around the edges, as if performing a ritual dance. ‘I feel nearer, more a part of the painting since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting,’ he wrote. But how was an architect like Blake supposed to interpret Pollock’s ‘energy made visible’ and transform it into built form? Blake drew plans for the ‘The Ideal Museum’, a glass pavilion that was transparent on all sides, so that Pollock’s paintings would appear to float mysteriously out in the landscape: ‘a dream of endless, infinite space in motion’, as Blake described it.

Less than a mile from Pollock’s studio, Surrealist artist-architect Frederick Kiesler was at work on his own version of free-flowing spatial continuity. ‘The Endless House is called endless because all ends meet, and meet continuously,’ he wrote. Columns and beams were eliminated in favour of a single continuous shell, womb-like and organic. Rooms were cellular entities called ‘space-nuclei’. Windows were irregularly shaped openings covered with moulded plastic. While Kiesler only ever completed a large-scale model, his Endless House suggested a bold new kind of dwelling, one that was liberated from traditional hierarchies of space.

This is an excerpt of the full story from Issue 5 of Design Anthology.