NOT NEWS – Speaking Bill’s Memory

Bill_sitting_side_2Pratt Institute School of Architecture held a memorial tribute and exhibition the other day entitled “William (Bill) Breger, 1922-2015, A Celebration of a Life in Architecture”. Bill was my uncle.

Krystyna, Bill’s widow, my aunt. has been carrying the flag for his history, encouraging tributes, working with documentarians on a film, making sure his legacy survives. One of her projects was a book of written memories contributed by friends, family and colleagues and, by rights, I should have contributed to it as well but I was daunted by the prospect. Bill, as you shall see, was a demanding critic and my relationship with him was deep and densely striated and I didn’t think I could include everything I wanted to say in a way he would approve of. I didn’t think I was good enough to do a suitable job and that is unfortunate because, while I am unqualified to tell his story, I may be the most qualified person left. He was a complicated man.

early prattThe Pratt event was warm and fascinating and revelatory for me. All of the speakers were former students of Bill’s, including Robert Siegel of Gwathmey Siegel (to throw in a marquee name), and all spoke of their terror of him during their years of study, how savage he was in jury, how uncompromising his standards were, how downright mean he could be. Here’s a little blurb posted on the Pratt website speaking of his relationship to the school: “Arriving at Pratt as a Professor of Architecture in 1946, Mr. Breger rose to chair the architecture program and establish architecture as an independent school with graduate and undergraduate programs representing all aspects of the built environment. Mr. Breger transformed the study of architecture at Pratt by bringing together his unique vision of aesthetics and philosophy within a rigorous and demanding professional curriculum. He educated and mentored a generation of architecture alumni, many of whom are leaders in their disciplines and credit him for contributing to their success.”

They also spoke about the excellence of his work, particularly his most famous work, the Civic Center Synagogue on White Street downtown.

civic centerThe building is much written about, it’s rising vector, it’s flamelike shape, but the handtruck in this photo adds some important depth, I think. When Civic Center was built, the neighborhood was populated by the garment trade. The Synagogue’s sole purpose was to provide a place for Shacharit and Minchah for the factory owners and workers (It amazes me, thinking of Manhattan as a manufacturing center but just think of all those ILGWU co-ops on the LES and West 20’s and you begin to get a sense of how large the scale must have been).  To me, that speaks to a rarely noted ruggedness to the building, squeezing a place for itself, holding apart those abutting masonry walls just as it’s daveners found a way to squeeze twice daily services into their workday.

A bit of the documentary I mentioned above was shown yesterday. Bill had, in addition to his masters in architecture, a masters in philosophy from NYU and part of the selected clip was a colloquy given by Bill on the Kantian split between the rational and the experiential, how he believed that the pursuit of rationality can lead to a formally beautiful experiential dimension but how over his career (this was filmed in 1997) he erred towards the rational and undervalued the experiential. Truly great architecture, he said, accommodates both dimensions and the only time he achieved that equilibrium, he said, was with the Civic Center Synagogue (If it sounds like I’m in a little over my head here, I am).

One of the things I inherited from my father, along with his pot belly and blue eyes, was a hero worship for his older brother. Bill was around infrequently enough that, from the beginning, he was more legend than uncle and when he did show up it was a carnival. He cursed all the time. He was uniformly contrary and mocked his siblings. He was my primary competitor for Grandma Beas’s gribbenes. He had a little green MG sportscar which he drove so recklessly, no one would agree to be his passenger. He lived in Greenwich Village and that in itself seemed excitingly sinister in those days of exploding suburbs and white-flight. And then there was the fucking.

Any biography that omits how much of Bill’s energy was directed towards getting laid is missing an important aspect of his life; or maybe it took no energy at all because he was very successful in his pursuit. That was something my father and I both admired. He didn’t often bring his women to family events but when he did they were young and pretty and I would just sit and shyly gaze. Bill was a professor at the New York School of Interior Design, which had a few gay men in the student body but was overwhelmingly populated by women. College age women who were too bohemian for college, unhappily married women looking to enrich their lives, divorced women looking to turn their remarked-on good taste into a career. It was like the automat for Bill and he had a pocketful of nickels. Professor Breger’s charms were magnetic

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I had a conversation with a general contractor Bill used often about this, many years later, after he finally found a home planet to orbit in Krystina, and he felt that the teaching and the fucking occupied so much time that it stole Bill’s attention from his career. Bill told me something like that too, that his life was rich in experience but that he did not leave behind the kind of masterwork he was capable of. He said that Gropius would have been disappointed in him. It was a sad, rueful conversation.

Walter Gropius was the founder of the Bauhaus, a school for the plastic arts that operated between the wars in Weimar Germany and which created an aesthetic that dominated architectural thought in the second half of the twentieth century. To the Nazis, however, the Bauhaus was regarded as a petri of degenerate art and Gropius as the ringleader was forced to seek refuge in the United States where he became Dean of Architecture at Harvard where. Bill was a member of the first post-war class, along with such fellow students as Philip Johnson and I.M. Pei but it was Bill who became Gropius’ assistant and draftsman (“draftsman” currently residing somewhere with Manhattan garment manufacturing). He was apprentice to Gropius for two years and judged him to be a great man and a great model for his life (Gropius has a few notable buildings but, like Bill, his greatest legacy is as a teacher).

There’s a story Bill tells in the documentary – Gropius told him, “I’ve been approached by a developer named Bill Zeckendorf who plans on building and wants to do good work so I’ve recommended you to him.” Bill was aghast. Developers were mercenaries, cheapskates, philistines. Bill passed so Gropius recommended Pei instead. The result was a great success and Pei’s career was made. Bill referred to it as the biggest mistake he ever made.

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In 1975, having washed out at Boston University, I moved back into my parents’ Forest Hills apartment. It was not a good time. My shame and their suspicion conspired to leave me in a passive, depressed state. Bill came to my rescue.

He had moved his offices to a brownstone he had bought almost vacant on East 53rd street with the intent of modifying the building into a live/work space. The one nonvacant unit, on the east side of the top floor of the building, belonged to Mrs. Cicarelli and Mrs. Cicarelli would not move. No amount of money motivated her and her continued occupancy operated as a veto to Bill’s plans. She became his bete noire. He hated her. At any given moment he might rant in the bluest possible language about what a curse she was to him. He decided to wait her out and so he rented out all the apartments in the building to students, former students and attractive women and he occupied the west half of the ground floor. He invited me to live in the east half in return for pulling the garbage three times a week and sweeping once a week, tasks I would end up performing intermittently and badly.

One of Bill’s endearing qualities was the way he collected the troubled, the sad sacks, as friends and the way he took care of them (often to his eventual detriment) and I think Bill may have regarded me that way. He was always there backing me up whenever my life was most difficult. I went to visit him with my then-girlfriend, now-wife, a very talented artist, in the last year of his life (Bill was 92 when he died in 2015). Bill looked at and admired her work, which was a great relief to me. I had recently ended 30 years of practice as a real estate attorney and had it in mind that I would do some writing. Bill regarded me with sad eyes and said “The tragedy of your life is you have a great sensitivity to art without any talent for creating it. An artist has a way of seeing, a way of transforming experience that allows them to create in any medium, often several mediums, and you can’t learn it and you don’t have it.”

Kind of cruel, no? I say no. I don’t think he meant to discourage me or, for that matter, to motivate me. I don’t think he had a purpose at all. I think it was a genuine expression of pain on my behalf. He was being the only thing Bill knew how to be – honest. This is what he had done as a teacher. His former students spoke about it yesterday. He frequently told students (in a less gentle manner than the one he used with me) that they lacked the commitment or talent or both to be a successful architect. Now, I need not accept his judgment of me or I can accept that I’m not an artist but that I can be a talented craftsman. Spending time with Jolean, though, who is an artist, and seeing how she interacts not only with visual art but also music and drama and the way she mediates every bit of stimulus and information in the world, I know she’s an artist in a way I am not.

In 1976, though, he was my savior. The 53rd Street house was lively. Everybody knew each other and spent time hanging out with each other and, best of all, I got to see Bill five days a week. That was exciting for me. We had so many talks, personal, aesthetic, philosophical, critical. I got to see him work, to see how the projects came together, how they went from a few intersecting lines in pencil on a piece of yellow tracing paper, to concept drawings, to plans, to renderings, to models, to bricks. Better still, when projects had deadlines, such as a competition, and everyone in the office was “en charette,” I would work with him, labeling details, rubbing press-type onto boards, running the blueprint machine with it’s near-lethal aroma of ammonia.

Of course, I was still pretty miserable notwithstanding my new location. I’m sure he had to explain to anyone who visited the office the source of that marijuana odor that suffused the first floor. He did not, could not, understand my depressive ennui, my inability to energize myself to do much of anything. Most mysteriously of all, why wasn’t I out there getting laid? It baffled him. He understood not feeling good about yourself but, to Bill, you treated that by fucking, you didn’t let it stop you.

bm2 (1)I spent about two years living on 53rd Street until my services were needed as a shill so that I could vote as a tenant, consenting to the cooperative conversion of my new address but the two years bonded us closely and Bill and I maintained very large parts in each other’s lives until the end of his. Whenever my contentious relationship with my father would flare, Bill was there to argue my side, even when I could tell he wasn’t fully committed to it. He had clearly expressed opinions of my various wives and girlfriends. We argued over politics, priorities, the changes the city was going through, music, family, almost everything. I liked disagreeing with him and I liked the jagged path our discussions would take. I even liked the sarcasm, the judgments which could be withering. An invitation to come over to his brownstone on West 10th would shift me into excited anticipation and drinking with him and Stanley and Sue, his downstairs neighbors, was an excursion into hysterical chaos. That I live in a brownstone in the Village has everything to do with emulating Bill.

There’s an aspect to Bill I think I’m missing. He was a madman, an anarchic, disruptive force, the spanner in the works at every event. It was hilarious and it was a pain in the ass. He never attended a party, a reception, a seder, that he didn’t hope to leave after ten minutes.

I’m not quite sure where to stop. He loved dim sum. He cherished his father, as sweet and meek a man as has ever walked the earth. He remained a protector and a scold of his brother, one year his junior, well into their eighties. When I was hospitalized in 2014, he would come visit me, notwithstanding how his 91 years limited his mobility. He developed macular degeneration beginning in his seventies and lived in fear of blindness saying, “It may have been possible for Beethoven to be a deaf composer but there’s no purpose to a blind architect.” He had an endless capacity for work and loved what he did and believed it to be important and worthwhile.

Bill found a consuming love late in life with Krystyna who, in the earliest days of their marriage, would spend six months a year away, teaching university in Cracow (an arrangement Bill thought ideal) but eventually was as near and constant as his right arm. He was a terrible, neglectful father who separated from his pregnant lover before their daughter Willow was born (though he did marry Willow’s mother before she entered kindergarten since, in the early ’50’s, illegitimacy was a significant social handicap) and the great sin of his life, in my opinion, was his inability to bring to the reciprocally tumultuous relationships with his daughter, grandson and great grandson the compassion he showed in abundance to his friends. I’m proud to include a video made by my cousin Willow below. She is as brainy as you’d expect Bill’s child to be.

He loved the opera, Mozart particularly and Don Giovanni even more particularly. He was constantly reading histories, those concerning Hitler and Stalin particularly. He loved reading old documents, train schedules particularly.

He specialized in designing hospitals and nursing homes and was responsible for creating many standards that became universal in health care facilities. He did good work, and often designed specifically for the local population where the facility was to be situated. He placed third in the competition to design the St. Louis Gateway and designed several noteworthy homes including the Evan Hunter house which was later owned by Steve Reich. The central characters of Hunter’s “Strangers When We Meet” and William Gaddis’ “The Recognitions” were both inspired by Bill (Bill was also friends with John Nichols, the  basis for Mark Swift in “Tropic of Cancer”) and, continuing with the literary, he was close friends with Anatole Broyard, Nat Hentoff and Norman Mailer.

Midst one of my romantic tribulations, Bill advised me, “It’s not that she’s critical; it’s that she lacks forgiveness and sometimes forgiveness is the only thing you have to rely on.”

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I love Bill and remain in awe of him.

I have more memories, more stories to tell. Him taking notes during the sermon at my bar mitzvah so he could bust the rabbi’s balls more effectively later. Staying at his apartment in Provincetown. His beautiful requiem for my father at his funeral.  Bill’s cats, Howard and Johnson. His compassion for my first wife while ovarian cancer took her away. How he moved out of his parent’s Bronx apartment when he was sixteen years old so he could simultaneously attend Stuyvesant High School (where he was at risk of not graduating because he failed French) and attend classes at Cooper Union where he was most decidedly not admitted.

I like, though, to imagine the years I wasn’t there for, the late forties and early fifties in the Village when Modernism was contemporary, when abstract expressionism was being born, when cool jazz and hard bop were dawning, when, as Broyard wrote, “Kafka was the rage,” when the city was bursting with ambition and Spanish restaurants and smokey boites and renegade galleries and massive buildings with curtain walls like no one had ever seen before, when Bill was teaching, staffing and creating the syllabus for Pratt, first accredited by AIA under his supervision, mentoring a cohort of upstart city kids, striding arrogantly at the head of the big parade of post-war culture.

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