Carl Abbott on Architectural Travel

Carl Abbott on Architectural Travel

Gabriel Hernández, Fulbright Visiting Scholar at the Yale School of Architecture and PhD candidate at Universidad Politécnica de Madrid, talks to Carl Abbott about introducing Norman Foster and Richard Rogers to American architecture and culture.

The following is an excerpt from a three-day interview with architect Carl Abbott FAIA (MArch ’62) conducted in Sarasota, Florida, in April 2023. This section focuses on Abbott’s insights into the significance of architectural travel as a pedagogical tool through his own American and European “grand tours” in the 1960s, when he played a crucial role in exposing American architecture and landscapes to his Yale classmates Norman Foster (MArch ’62) and Richard Rogers (MArch ’62). More than 50 years later Abbott generously guided me around Sarasota to visit local architectural gems, including many designed by Paul Rudolph and his own buildings. While on the road Abbott shared his sharp and witty perspective on his adventures as well as an appreciation of architecture and a trunk filled with books.

Born in Georgia and based in Florida since the 1950s, Carl Abbott is a fellow of the AIA and the youngest member of the “Sarasota School of Architecture,” with an extensive body of work that connects architecture, landscape, and art. He enrolled in the master’s program at Yale in 1961. Soon after arriving, Rudolph appointed Abbott as the class representative in charge of organizing the visits of master’s students from Penn, Harvard, and MIT, as well as the corresponding Yale trips to those institutions. Yet Abbott is better known as the sole American in the British student gang that included Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, and Su Rogers (née Brumwell), who was enrolled at Yale’s Master of City Planning.

Rudolph’s intense studio schedule and the intellectual curiosity catalyzed by Vincent Scully’s lectures drove these new four friends to invest their semester breaks in traveling together to expand their horizons beyond Connecticut. During the winter and Easter breaks of 1962 Abbott became an architectural cicerone, leading an epic road trip west to Fallingwater, Chicago, and Taliesin. The group visited as many Frank Lloyd Wright buildings as they could, along with works by Mies van der Rohe and Louis Sullivan.

After graduation Foster and Rogers worked briefly in California while Abbott worked in Hawaii, until, after the summer of 1963, they convinced Abbott to join them in London, where they had recently started working together as Team 4, testing the group dynamics developed at Yale. Abbott also traveled extensively throughout Europe, influenced by Scully’s teachings about the importance of traveling to experience architecture in its context. At the time students had to tailor their itineraries based on motivation and budget, whereas today Yale students receive generous support for travel, which has become a fundamental element of the school’s architectural pedagogy.

Gabriel Hernández Were you aware of Paul Rudolph’s academic program, teaching methods, or persona before you enrolled at Yale in 1961?
Carl Abbott I had no idea, except it was known by everybody that Rudolph had taught at a lot of different universities and had this reputation as a fighter. He was intense and demanding of himself and demanding of everybody around him. I had heard he was a tough professor and would make you work like you’ve never worked before, but I didn’t know it would be as intense as it was. As Richard Rogers said, “Yale is close to sailboats, and I love sailing. I’d do a lot of sailing, and New York was handy, so I thought we’d have a lot of fun in New York. But it was like an architectural army camp.” Rudolph was a little Napoleon in a way. I’ve never said that before.
GH Despite the intense work, you managed to get some time away from New Haven. As the only American in the group, how did you start showing your British colleagues around?
CA The only time we traveled was during breaks between projects and semesters. Norman, Richard, Su, and I went to New York maybe only twice. We didn’t have time. But I took them to see more of America — we saw West Side Story and a few other movies and plays — and we went together to see a Yale-Harvard football game. I couldn’t explain the game because I didn’t understand it, and they all thought it was so stupid. Then I took them to see ice hockey at the new Ingalls Rink, designed by Eero Saarinen — or as Scully referred to it, the pregnant turtle.
GH When did you make your first “architectural trip”?
CA In 1958 I was working on a project at the University of Florida. I kept talking about Wright’s gardens and houses in Chicago, in Oak Park. A professor, Bill Stewart, told me: “You need to go there.” I said, “Well, how do I pay to get there?” And then I won a small scholarship from the University of Florida and got a ride up north with a fraternity brother. Later I took a train and hitchhiked part of the way out to Taliesin. In Chicago, taking Wright books with me, I would sit on the sidewalk in the freezing cold to study the building. Some things had changed a lot, but you could still imagine the original building while checking early photographs. This trip acted as a footprint for the one we did four years later.
GH Is this how you customized your travels, by taking books with you?
CA Yes. A year after graduating from Yale, I went to England with the thought of getting a scholarship and staying there to study and look at buildings. I then planned to travel around Europe for several months, so I took tons of books from America with me. I took Scully’s book too.
GH Was it The Earth, the Temple, and the Gods, about Greek sacred architecture?
CA Yes, it was published while we were at Yale. Scully’s seminars were significantly related to that content. His lectures were intense, but the book is much more intense. Although Scully didn’t say, “Why don’t you all go out to Chicago?” He never said that. Never. And no one else in our class traveled. I remember that when we got to Fallingwater, everything was locked. Having been there before, I knew we could get a flyover, which we did, but we got caught. Su talked them into showing us around the property. As Norman explained at Yale during the 2008 building reopening, “We were a little group, just the four of us. We were almost like a band. We looked at buildings and studied them as ferociously as we could.” After graduation, when Norman and Richard were working in California for some months, I joined them for a shot time to visit buildings in the Bay Area and Los Angeles.
GH To what extent would the books you had shape your travels?
CA When I returned from traveling for three months in Italy and Greece, in 1964, I brought back a lot of books. And I took more books than clothes going from America to Europe. I didn’t buy much in England though prices were reasonable in those days for Americans.
GH How long were you in England?
CA Nine months with Team 4, and a total of one year between England and Europe. When I first got to England Su picked me up at the airport, and soon after I joined all of them on holiday at her parent’s house in Cornwall. None of the early Team 4 projects, such as Creek Vean, were there yet. So I said: “I didn’t come to England to go on holiday. I came to see Europe and England.” I returned to London after stopping at Stonehenge, packed all my stuff, and went to Europe. I took off for Spain because I wanted to see Gaudí’s work in Barcelona, and I wanted to see some of Corb’s work in France. I did not speak any other language, but I traveled with a series of books called Europe on 5 Dollars a Day, which would tell you the cheapest, safest, and unsafest hotels. I loved Barcelona. I remember that women in Spain and Italy wore black clothes — things had not progressed that rapidly since the war. There were still bombed-out parts of London.
GH When did you get back to London?
CA In July 1963 I went back and applied for scholarships. I remember I was already working with Team 4 when Kennedy died [November 22, 1963] because Norman and Wendy came to my apartment to give me the news. Norman and Richard were trying to help me get jobs, and we all taught occasionally at the AA and Regent Street Polytechnic. And then they said: “Well, why don’t you work with us? We got a few small mews housing projects and the several Creek Vean projects.” So that’s when I started working with them at Team 4. It was never the intention to come and start the office with them, but they needed help getting it going. Then I got my VW bug. I went to Italy and Greece, driving with a couple of AA students who later worked with Norman, to help pay for expenses. They were with me for a week. I went to Ronchamp and La Tourette again, and then straight to Italy. I had all my books in the back of the VW. I would sleep on beaches or at youth hostels.
GH How long were you traveling this time?
CA It could have been three months, and I enjoyed every part, especially Greece. I learned so much from that trip; it was so meaningful. This was the kind of trip that you’ll always remember. Interestingly the last time I saw Richard was at Team 4’s fiftieth-anniversary celebration in London, in 2016, and he called to ask if I’d like to have lunch with him at his apartment before the party. And I will never forget what he said about the Wright-Chicago trip we did as students: “That’s the most important architectural trip I ever did.”

Constructs Fall 2023