written by
Josh Abramovich

Norman Jaffe’s vision of serenity

Architecture 4 min read

Norman Jaffe was an American architect who contributed to the rise of modernism throughout New England. His work challenged the predominately shingle, colonial, and neo-classical architecture in the region.

Portrait of Norman Jaffe

Jaffe was born in 1932 in Chicago to parents from Poland and Latvia. He studied architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and later transferred to UC Berkeley in 1958. For some time, Jaffe worked under his professor and mentor, Joseph Esherick, who influenced his style. In 1967, Jaffe relocated to Bridgehampton, NY, and began his practice. With this move, he brought California modernism to the East Coast.

Becker House, Wainscott, 1969. Photographer: Alastair Gordon | Source: The East Hampton Star

The Becker House was designed for Harold Becker, a photographer and filmmaker. Jaffe’s inspiration originated from a farmhouse with a collapsed gable in an Irish meadow. His selection of stone and wood substantiated his belief that “the organic use of organic resources intensifies, and unifies, timelessness and otherworldliness.” Furthermore, the abstract form and slanted skylight resemble a camera viewfinder, which compliments the client’s profession. The high ceiling generated a vibrant interior. However, it was subject to leakage decades later, a similar fate to works by Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright. As Jaffe ignored the issue, perhaps this was the cost of innovation. The residence was featured in House & Garden magazine as his first award-winning project.

Lloyd’s House, East Hampton, 1977. Photographer: Cervin Robinson | Source: Modern Mag

Jaffe was notorious for being committed to his designs and uncompromising with clients. Eventually, he rejected 8 out of every 10 commissions, only working for those who gave him control over his visions. Jaffe also made changes during construction, even handing contractors a sketch on sheetrock to alter the design. This tenaciousness led most projects to take longer and fall over budget.

Regardless, his homes can be seen across Long Island, primarily the Hamptons, exhibiting striking geometries, natural materials, and passive solar solutions. Jaffe’s work contested the boundaries of nature and dwelling, the exterior and interior. He had an affinity for Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie style, which explored similar relationships.

Jaffe perceived architecture as a “romantic journey.” Most of his clients lived stressful lives in the city and needed a quiet getaway. Therefore, the sharp, modernist glass cube was too exuberant for their needs. Rather, creating an intimate refuge was essential.

“At Sam’s Creek I learned in most cases it is the garden, the land forms and the lighted interior spaces that are the issues in residential design. Community and privacy. Nature and family.” - Norman Jaffe
Ed Cohen House, Southampton, 1984. Photographer: Jeff Heatley | Source: AAQ East End

Jaffe’s work harnessed sunlight through a technique he called “trapping the sky.” For example, the Ed Cohen House is divided into two buildings to catch the sky in the middle, allowing light to pass through. Jaffe also utilized glass to see through buildings, making the structures appear lighter. These methodologies attempted to make the heavy appear light and the light appear heavy.

“One should look at a building as a series of planes, and intersections of planes enclosing a space, yet open in such a way that the light is a presentation of uninterrupted light — by interrupted light meaning the light changes within the building but the light is ever-present.” - Norman Jaffe

Materiality was essential to Norman Jaffe. To him, light and materials formed a symbiotic relationship; the light reveals depth, texture, and color, and the material, in its light and shadows, showcases the natural beauty of the site.

“But, for me, the underlying journey one wishes to send his client on — the one living in the house — is that of experiencing the wonder of light itself, with materials used and lit to express their qualities, detailed to be seen for themselves, connected with consideration of tonal values.” - Norman Jaffe

Impacted by Eastern mysticism, Norman Jaffe felt uneasy about designing private residences for affluent clients in his later career. The idea of millions of dollars spent on single-family homes, often only used in the summertime, made him reconsider his values.

As Jaffe’s perspective changed, he created one of his greatest works: The Grove Synagogue in East Hampton. As light filters through skylights, it creates a tranquil environment, illuminating and bringing life to the interior. The project was inspired by the wooden synagogues in Eastern Europe. Ultimately, the communal space allows individuals to think beyond themselves and connect to a higher power.

Interior of Jaffe’s 565 Fifth Avenue, 1993.

Jaffe’s last project was a shift from his residential work in the Hamptons to an office tower in Manhattan: 565 Fifth Avenue. The building features a sleek glass facade, as well as square ornamentation and lighting fixtures throughout the lobby. While Jaffe’s material choice changed, his concentration on abstract forms and picturesque lighting is still apparent.

Norman Jaffe disappearance
Clipping from New York Post, 1993. Source: Adsum

In 1993, Jaffe went out for his morning swim in the ocean. However, he did not return. As news spread, so did speculation around the cause, motive, and validity of his passing. Rather than focusing on Jaffe’s death as a form of spectacle, we should appreciate his dedication and impact on architecture in his 35-year career.

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