Few architects are more synonymous with the classical movement than Allan Greenberg. A frequent fixture on Architectural Digest’s AD 100 list, Greenberg is widely considered to be one of America’s most influential classical architects. Somewhat paradoxically, Greenberg is originally from Johannesburg—a city not known for its Greco-Roman forms—and pays almost no attention to the accolades that have spanned his nearly 50-year career. He keeps a surprisingly low profile in comparison to the grand residences he has designed, saying, “I have a little office and I keep my nose to the grindstone.” Even so, his namesake firm (with offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Greenwich, Connecticut) has long captured the attention of the architectural world with its historically inspired facades and thoughtful blend of ornament and symmetry.
In celebration of the holidays and all things classic, Previews® Inside Out approached Greenberg with questions related to the residential activity we will be doing most this season: entertaining.
Previews Inside Out What draws you to classical architecture?
Allan Greenberg It solves more problems. It’s easier to be environmentally sound. It’s easier to do an urbane building that relates to its context. It’s also easier to do a more beautiful building. The American version of classical architecture is beloved by so many people.
Previews Inside Out Are there any places where you see modernism and classical architecture intersecting?
Allan Greenberg Yes, I believe so. Modernists like Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier studied the past and were happier to relate the new to the old. I think the intersection point for them is somewhere between “the past is not the enemy, but the place where everything began.” Their buildings, like classical buildings, are tectonic. That is, you understand how their structure works and you can feel the muscles of the building. Human beings look at buildings and feel them through their bodies. And they didn’t object to symmetry when it is appropriate.
Previews Inside Out How do you think architects of the past would approach contemporary concepts like a grand kitchen or a great room?
Allan Greenberg The size of the kitchen is determined on function. If you look at a lot of restaurant kitchens, they are actually more compact than residential kitchens. This is reasonable in a restaurant setting. However, in a contemporary home, food preparation and socializing happens at the same time. A kitchen must accommodate that, but it can also be too big. When that occurs, a small group may feel a little lost in the space. If it’s a big group, you may feel far away from the action. Getting the room the right size and in the right relationship to the family room, butler’s pantry and other ancillary rooms is really important.
Previews Inside Out What are the most common types of entertaining spaces clients ask you for?
Allan Greenberg Most people want a kitchen, family room and breakfast room that suit them. Sometimes they are separated; sometimes it happens in one big room. Many have wonderful views to the outside. Today, we build formal living rooms and dining rooms, but 90% of the time, entertaining takes place in the family room or kitchen area. Many of my clients love cooking and the act of working together to prepare a wonderful meal. They’ll eat at a long table, or series of tables—especially if children are involved. Cooking is one of America’s greatest pastimes. After all, today there may well be more books written about garlic than architecture!
Previews Inside Out What are the most unusual entertaining spaces clients have asked you for?
Allan Greenberg Most of my clients have conventional needs. I have very few requests for outrageous features.
Previews Inside Out Are there any great classical buildings of the past that provide context for you when designing social spaces?
Allan Greenberg Newport, Rhode Island. The historic Newport mansions were built for extremely wealthy people who entertained for five to six weeks when they visited during the summer. There are interesting lessons there, from both a service and an entertainment perspective. They hosted so many guests and required many guestrooms. If you look at George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, they entertained in more modest ways. If they invited a lot of people, they would often need to move most of the party outside.
Previews Inside Out Which classical elements do you frequently draw upon when designing a home for entertaining?
Allan Greenberg An obvious choice is the great terrace that George Washington built at Mount Vernon, overlooking the Potomac River. I have clients who have a similar terrace right now, and they will place a long table on their terrace, with 50–60 people on each side, and serve these wonderful dinners with lights hanging from the ceiling. On nice days, it’s just fabulous.
A passionate champion of canonical classicism, Allan Greenberg has taught at Yale University’s Schools of Architecture and Law, the University of Pennsylvania and the Department of Historic Preservation at Columbia University. He was the first American to be awarded the Richard H. Driehaus Prize for Classical Architecture in 2006. A monograph of his work was published by Rizzoli in 2013 and can be purchased here.