Hugh and Simon Jacobsen, Architects
Few Washingtonians need introduction to Jacobsen Architecture, the Georgetown firm behind some of the snazziest edifices in Washington and the world, including the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery, the U.S. embassies in Paris and Moscow and several external additions to a little building called the U.S. Capitol. John Blee sits down to chat with father-son architecture aces Hugh and Simon Jacobsen.
When you work with a client, do you merge with their aesthetic, or do you try to shift their taste in your direction?
Our approach is that a client is not just another client or project, but rather an individual with a very unique set of circumstances, tastes, experiences, fears and enthusiasms who, out of all the architects in the world, has come to us to design their house and, hopefully forever, change their lives for the better. We listen with a kind of architectural stethoscope for the blatant design instruction and for the subtle murmur of something that they can neither explain nor describe.
In designing a house what do you enjoy the most, and what do you have to struggle with, other than financial constraints?
There is no greater satisfaction for architects and designers that when the initial presentation is complete, the client is no longer sitting in their chair but jumping up and down shaking your hand and trying to kiss you.
The struggle for us comes in the form of trying to get the project past the oceans architectural review boards in the international and national jurisdictions that we work in. We like to say “it is like giving birth to a barbed wire fence."
Where did you study, and who has influenced you as an architect?
Hugh: Yale, much influenced by Lou Kahn.
Simon: The Chicago School of Architecture-UIC, influenced by Richard Meier and many deconstructionists and theorists of the Chicago School.
What is the easiest thing about working with clients, and what is the most difficult?
The easiest thing, of course, is being permitted to do what we do best, which is to streamline the project on time and on budget. The hard part comes when the client makes changes during construction, for whatever reason. We have very innovative and unique details and methods that are not intuitive at first sight to the builder. Much planning goes into the construction preparation and for it to change can be frustrating and expensive for everyone.
Do you do interiors, including placement of furniture? If so, is that more complex in terms of client preference?
We are one of the few firms in the world where the design of the building starts with the furniture (both ours and the owners’), in addition to art and light. Therefore, our completed building is a total envelope of a congruent aesthetic of a single company, rather than other firms, who seem to lock arms in an uncomfortable collaboration of people trying fruitlessly to coordinate the thousands of parts and hopefully getting them to fit together like ill-fitting puzzle pieces. In our work, the interiors and furniture is part of the architecture, and it doesn’t look as if someone stopped by at the last minute and lobbed in a bunch of stuff, hoping that it would work.
Is the contractor someone you carry over from job to job?
We are currently working in the Cayman Islands, California, Colorado, Maine, Nantucket, Washington, Melbourne (Australia), Florida, etc. We prefer to always work with the same builders when possible, for we go through a kind of teaching and explanation period on every new project and new builder. However, many of our projects are in “one-shot” locations, and in those places we are unable to use a preferred builder.
What’s the fastest turn around, in designing from scratch with a house, from drawings to the client moving in?
One year, and we still can’t believe it. The client didn't make any changes!
Do you do kitchens, and if so, what’s the most expensive job you’ve done and what did it include?
Well, we have done million-dollar kitchens and we have done ten thousand-dollar kitchens. Our expertise is not building expensive kitchens, but really good ones. Yes, the $1 million kitchens do pop up, but we would rather spend that money on the roof or the pool — or just put the pool on the roof.
Light is what your firm is known for in his houses, how is that achieved?
To most people who know the work, it may appear that buildings just have a great deal of glass. Although this is key, it is only a fourth of the issue. We bring light inside, then it is prismed on reflective plains of the interior. The houses are positioned so that the sun doesn’t overpower the spaces, damaging art and fabrics, and we use walls of books, art and furniture to introduce color where the light then dances off all of the surfaces.
What is the house you’ve worked on that you are most proud of?
The ones we have underway now.
Name the five best buildings in the D.C. area you did not design.
The British Embassy, the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art, Society of Cincinnati, The Metropolitan Club, The US Capitol.
Other than your own houses, what house in D.C. would you most like to live in?
Simon: The Egyptian Embassy off Sheridan Circle.
Did you design your own home, and if you did, what are you happiest with about it?
Hugh: That it has survived 40 years of children, mumps, measles, holidays, teenagers, illness, prosperity and the occasional visiting Republican.
Simon: That people walk by and look in the windows. I think it is also on a local tour map, where it is listed as “some weird guy’s all-white house.”