Meet the Architect: Gary Brewer of Robert A.M. Stern Architects

History is the starting point for every project by this RAMSA partner
Meet the Architect: Gary Brewer of Robert A.M. Stern Architects

You’ve been at RAMSA since 1989. How do you describe the firm’s approach?
Our process is to dig into the history of building types and styles and to use that knowledge as a platform for new work. Historical research goes into every one of our projects. We don’t have a signature style. The character of each project is a reflection of the particulars of the site and the clients’ goals, aspirations and budget.

How do you do that?
If a client asks for a Georgian house, you’d want to know all the things that give Georgian houses their identifiable character. You’d develop a scholarly understanding of a history of the style, and then deploy it as a springboard to push it forward. I like the saying: “Tradition is to feed the fire, not to worship the ashes.”

How did you “push it forward” in the RAMSA project in this issue?
Working within the Shingle style, I designed a house that speaks the regional dialect of Southern Connecticut. I also worked to downplay the size of the house to give it a cottage-y, comfortable feel. Which details help achieve that? The Dutch gambrel roof helps bring down the scale of the house, as does the pergola for trailing roses over the entry porch. Inside, beams and beaded board give the room human scale. In a lot of my work, the ceiling ends up being more interesting than the floor.

Gary Brewer's 1960 American Foursquare

What did you learn about pattern-book houses from designing “dream” house for Life magazine and This Old House?
So many of today’s architects—including my firm—are like couture fashion designers, creating one-of-a-kind houses. At the same time, there are pre-war houses that were built from pattern-book designs. In the 1830s—1930s, people understood what makes a good house. I’m afraid a certain amount of architectural literacy has been lost.

What has renovating your own home taught you?
I learned to empathize with people who own houses; I have a first-hand appreciation of the time, energy and money taking care of a house requires compared to living in an apartment. In renovating my house, which was almost certainly a pattern-book house, I didn’t want to lose the charm that drew me to it in the first place; instead I worked to add architectural character to make it into more of what it already was.          

A version of this article appeared in the May 2014 issue of Connecticut Cottages & Gardens with the headline: Meet the Architect.

BROWSE PHOTOS FROM THIS MONTH'S FEATURE, Gary Brewer, Partner at Robert A.M. Stern Architects, Designs a Shingle-Style Stunner on Long Island Sound