Peter van Dijk, FAIA, Architect 1969 CLEVELAND ARTS PRIZE RECIPIENT FOR ARCHITECTURE will be the 2016 Cleveland Arts Prize Special Honoree
Few figures have so profoundly shaped Cleveland—and done so for the better—as Peter van Dijk. The architect designed some of the best buildings in the region, including the Blossom Music Center; has played a major role in historic restoration; and for decades has quietly played an active and positive role in civic design and planning, and arts activities of all sorts. The CAP organization just announced that Peter van Dijk is this year’s Special Honoree. This seemed a good opportunity to interview him about his rich and varied career, and how it happened that he has spent most of it in Cleveland.
Adams: You’ve become a Cleveland fixture, but I assume you’re not originally from here. Where did it all start?
Peter van Dijk: My family was Dutch and my Dad worked for the Royal Dutch Shell oil company. I was born in Indonesia, but I don’t remember that. When I was young we moved to Venezuela, which was then and still is the center of major oil operations. It was nice living in the tropics. I grew up in a Dutch colony of about sixty families and attended school with other Dutch kids. When my brothers and I lived in Venezuela we were out in the sticks and couldn’t buy things, so we made them. We made kites, models, a tree house, and things like that. And we were always drawing. We didn’t have TV or anything like that. So we entertained ourselves. I think that had a lot to do with why I became an architect. Of course I also grew up in an international way. I’m fluent in Dutch, Spanish and English, and conversant in Italian, French and German. I think it’s important for architects to travel and know other civilizations and countries.
Adams: Did you move around in your early years?
Van Dijk: Every three years they brought people back to Holland. At that time it took about three weeks to get from Venezuela to New York and then by ocean liner to Holland. In 1939 we went back and I entered a boarding school in Holland but then World War II started and my parents decided to get us out. Fortunately, Holland was still a neutral country so we were able to go down the French west coast and back to Venezuela. At that point my brothers and I attended a school in Curacao, an island off the coast of Venezuela which was a Dutch colony. We attended a Jesuit school, and boarded with a family there.
In 1945, when Holland had been liberated, and the war was slowing down, the family went back to Holland, to The Hague where Shell’s headquarters were located. Then I returned to the United States, attended High School in Mamaroneck, New York, in West Chester county, my first experience in an American school; and then went on to the University of Oregon.
Adams: When did you decide to become an architect?
Van Dijk: At the University of Oregon, I majored in architecture. Probably my most memorable experience was when Buckminster Fuller came as a visiting scholar and we built a geodesic dome.
From 1953 to 55, after graduating from the University of Oregon, I served in the army, and then went on to MIT on the GI Bill. It was an exciting experience just being in Cambridge, which at that time had two superb architectural schools, MIT and Harvard, and was at the center of what was happening in architecture at the time. After graduating I had a Fulbright to Rome which gave me a chance to travel and see Italian architecture. When I returned to the United States, Pietro Belluschi, who had been my teacher, recommended me to Eero Saarinen.
Adams: Certainly one of the great figures in the history of modern architecture. He must have been an important influence.
Van Dijk: Yes, I went to work with Saarinen in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. There were about 40 people in the office. We helped him make models and construction drawings and I worked on several major projects including the Dulles airport project and the music school at the University of Michigan. It was an exciting time. Saarinen was very interested in new materials and in finding ways of putting them together into clean, elegant designs that very much expressed how they were made.
Adams: When did you go out on your own?
Van Dijk: Well, quite unexpectedly, Saarinen died of an aneurysm. He was just fifty-one years old. And at the same time I was approached by three Cleveland firms who had combined to work together on an enormous project—the Anthony J. Celebrezze Federal Building. It was over a million square feet in size with a budget of over 32 million dollars. They had agreed that they would all work together to do the building, but they couldn’t agree on who was going to design it: they were at a complete stalemate. They wanted an architect.
Adams: So that’s what brought you to Cleveland?
Van Dijk: Yes. They offered me a three year contract and asked me to bring two associates down to help. So the three of us designed it with support from people in the three offices. When that was over I was planning to go back to Oregon, but then I was offered a position at Schafer, Flynn & Associates, a firm which was started by Abraham Garfield, the son of President Garfield, in 1905. He was a very good architect and did a number of fine buildings here in Cleveland.
Adams: Do you have a favorite building that you designed?
Van Dijk: Well, that brought a number of interesting commissions. One of the most interesting was the Blossom Music Center. It was really a collaboration. I worked with Richard Genser, who was a very imaginative structural engineer, and with Christopher Jaffe, who knew about acoustics. I was just 37, Chris was 39, Genser was a little older. To create the building we needed to think clearly about what the problems were. For example, with the acoustics, it’s very different from designing an indoor symphony hall. You’re not keeping the sound in a container and so there’s no reverberation. There weren’t many models for us to look at. There was Tanglewood, in western Massachusetts, where the Boston symphony plays; and there was a pavilion called Ravinia for the Chicago Symphony. Those were the two major precedents. They both had faults. For one thing they both had flat roofs and flat floors.
Adams: It sounds like one of the major challenges in architecture is deciding what problem you’re trying to solve.
Van Dijk: Yes indeed. In this case we decided to focus on two things. We wanted good acoustics, and we wanted the audience to be able to see the performers from any direction. We decided to make a roof that was curved in a way that helped the acoustics. There’s a big attic that allows the sound to expand and project; it’s a reverberant sound; and we made the structure that supports the roof very lean, with beams but no walls, so that you can look at the orchestra from all sides and really see all the action. In fact, we tipped the floor to make it easier to see the players. The other major decision was to where to put the building in the landscape. It’s positioned in a natural bowl in the landscape which helps the acoustics. It also makes the building feel connected with the earth.
Adams: Did you consult with musicians about what you were doing?
Van Dijk: I have wonderful memories of George Szell. I thought we should run what we were doing by the maestro, but when I went to meet with him I was nervous as hell. I went to see him with Chris Jaffe, the acoustic engineer. Szell was famous for being very strict–not much humor—but he entered the room and came right up to me, extending his hand and saying in Dutch, “Dag mijnheer van Dijk. Aangenaam met U kennis te maken” (Hello Mr. van Dijk. Nice to meet you). I was stunned but answered in Dutch that I didn’t know that he knew some Dutch. Whereupon he said that he has conducted the Concertgebouw Orchestra and has learned some Dutch. It was a very kind gesture that put me at ease. We got along. He would telephone me when the project was under construction, and would pick me up and drive me out to the site. We had wonderful conversations. He was interested in everything. He was just a wonderful man.
Adams: Other projects?
Van Dijk: I did a theater in Denver for ballet, opera and Broadway shows; lots of hospitals, including work at the Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals; I worked on the Upper School at University School as well as the Ursuline College Campus; and some of these Cleveland and Ohio companies let me do their corporate headquarters—the Parker-Hannifin Corporate headquarters at Landerhaven; B. F. Goodrich; Lubrisol; Invacare.
Adams: Have there been unusual twists to your career?
Van Dijk: I also became involved in historic preservation. I’ve enjoyed that very much. I wouldn’t design a fake building but I worked to save some great historic buildings. It started with the Huntington Bank building. They wanted me to fill in the grand lobby with three floors with low acoustic tile ceilings, and I told them that they should preserve what they had: that it was probably the grandest bank in America. “Do you want the job of not?” they asked. So I went to see the President, and explained what we could do to bring the building up-to date. That was my first experience with restoration and adoptive re-use.
After that we worked on the Society Bank building on Public Square—an old building from the 1890s, designed by John Welborn Root of Burnham and Root—as well as on the Old Post Office and the Federal Reserve building. And after that on Playhouse Square.
Playhouse Square, with its four theaters, was about to be demolished. I was convinced that it could be revived, that it could become like Lincoln Center, with theaters, and Broadway shows. Fortunately other people rallied at the same time and at the eleventh hour saved the building from being torn down. And the Cleveland Foundation came to the rescue. I also worked on the Warehouse District. In fact we moved our office down there at the time—to the Hoyt Block.
Adams: So you’ve been interested not only in individual buildings but in the fabric of the city?
Van Dijk: Yes indeed. Save what’s familiar. It’s what gives the city its character. These layers of history. I really love Cleveland. I’ve been here now for fifty years. The beautiful buildings, the housing, the way the suburbs such as Shaker Square are laid out. It’s a wonderful place to live. It’s easy to get to work, easy to get access to entertainment, to health care, to a great orchestra, to a great museum. I do feel that we’ve made some mistakes. Especially the Lake front—we’ve shut ourselves from the Lakefront. Chicago is different and has made good use of its lake. But I think there’s still hope.
Adams: Any disappointments?
Van Dijk: If you think of its history, Cleveland is really “The City of Light.” When I was working on the Playhouse Square project I discovered that early on Edison was involved with creating street lighting for Cleveland and that Michelson and Morley conducted their experiments to measure the speed of light when they were here. So I wanted to do something exciting with light. In the end all we got was that damned chandelier that hangs over the road. I wanted to do something more modern, adventurous and exciting.
Adams: Are there activities other than architecture that you’ve enjoyed?
Van Dijk:I’ve been a swimmer all my life and as a swimmer I’m in the greater Cleveland Sports Hall of Fame. They do master’s swimming, with competitions divided into five-year groups starting in the late twenties and going up from there. I’ve had sixty national championship and seventeen world championships. I don’t always go to the world championships, depending on where they are. It’s kept me healthy. And architecture can be stressful, especially if you have a bad client.
Adams: Any advice to young architects?
Van Dijk: I often get calls from young people who are interested in becoming architects. You need to work on learning to draw. You need to just draw and force yourself to draw. But I also tell them to get a good liberal arts education. Take history, philosophy, English, and things like that. When you’re in architecture school you spend all our time in the studio. But architecture is more than just a technical field. Our practice had amazingly varied projects—schools, hospitals, performing arts building, office buildings. You deal with all aspect of human endeavor—and hopes. You need to be curious about everything. For me architecture has been a fabulous profession, a form of lifelong learning.