Richly-colored canvases line the walls of architect Victor Lundy’s hangar-like studio in Houston, Texas. Some 50 feet wide and 65 feet long, there is ample room to make art and houses his de facto archive. Shelved are battlefield sketchbooks from his WWII service as are numerous magazine clippings featuring the architect’s designs. Over his career Lundy’s designed churches and embassies, houses and, even, inflatable structures. Practicing since the early 1950s, he still picks up the occasional house commission and paints daily. At 85, he has a restless creativity. “These days I am thinking a lot and I am on a verge of a breakthrough,” Lundy says over the phone. “I want to invent something, but it is hard. Every time I paint, the rectangle is a limiting thing. Being an architect, everything I paint is seems less important than the space I make.” The architect’s vision is grander than the canvas. It always has been.
Just look at his design for the 1960 traveling exhibition pavilion for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). Built out of vinyl fabric and air, it resembled a puffed-up Henry Moore sculpture. The pavilion’s 19,000 square feet housed a working nuclear reactor and a theater. Given Lundy’s modernist training, the building seems an anomaly, but add in his artistic sensibility and it makes perfect sense: a match of building technology and a passion for form.
By his own admission, Lundy is a bit of an iconoclast, a “lone wolf.” After serving as a squad leader in the Army during WWII, he entered Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, headed by Modernist master Walter Gropius. The transition wasn’t easy. He joined classes late and his previous classical Beaux Arts training at NYU wasn’t appropriate. In response to an assignment to design a theater in Marcel Breurer’s studio, he presented brightly colored renderings to a roomful of Bauhaus Modernists. His classmates’ projects were drafted in black ink.
Eventually Lundy learned to draw in black and white, yet he never gave up the expressiveness of paint. After graduating from the GSD, Lundy moved to Sarasota, Florida in 1951. There, a painting of Notre Dame Cathedral earned the architect his first commission: the Sarasota Chamber of Commerce building. Karl Bickel, chairman of the building committee, spotted the “Best of Show” watercolor in a juried art exhibit and asked Lundy to submit a scheme. The architect took his brushes to the site and dashed off a series of paintings that eventually became the design—his gestural stroke of celadon blue, the tile roof.
Considered part of the Sarasota School of modern architecture, Lundy shrugs off this description. It is hard to ascribe a particular signature to his buildings; each takes shape based on site, program, and materials. His 1965 masonry facade for IBM’s complex in Cranford, NJ simultaneously evokes a mainframe computer and a Mayan temple. But there is a certain attitude: the forms and spaces are rich, but the architect makes complicated structures look effortless. “With every problem I make these images out the blue—initial responses—and then I fuss with them, refine, change, and discard. I work towards the irreducible,” Lundy explains. The concept for the sculptural Unitarian Church (1959-65) in Westport, CT is simple: two halves of the hyperbolic roof rise in unison supported by laminated beams, to a peak, but never meet. It captures the church’s belief in an “open question.”
The Westport church and the polygonal Unitarian Meeting House (1962-64) in Hartford, CT placed Lundy on the national architecture scene. He moved to a Manhattan office and, in 1965, traveled to Moscow alongside the canonical Louis Kahn, Robert Venturi, Paul Rudolph, and Charles Eames in conjunction with the federally-sponsored exhibit, Architecture U.S.A. Of the five architects, Lundy has the least name-recognition today.
What makes this low profile surprising, is that Lundy, as much as his distinguished colleagues, experimented with and redefined modernism in the sixties and seventies. He’s credited with the first architecturally-designed air buildings. In fact, the pneumatics he created in collaboration with Birdair Structures of Buffalo, NY—the AEC pavilion and the “air flower” restaurant pavilions for the New York World’s Fair of 1963-64—realize exuberant ideas and techniques that avant-garde architecture practices, such as the pop culture–inspired Archigram and Ant Farm, were only just beginning to imagine.
Lundy’s mid-career work, such as the U.S. Tax Court Building in Washington, DC (1976) is the architect at his most monumental. A 200-foot-long courtroom cantilevers ominously over the entry stair. Expressing the program inside, the granite-clad facade is classically symmetrical, with a modern austerity. Yet difficulty getting the project built echoes larger cultural and economic shifts. Both this project and the U.S. Embassy in Colombo, Sri Lanka (1984), were commissioned in the 1960s, but frustratingly delayed by funding cuts caused by the Vietnam War. During that time many small firms took a hit, transferring the architectural discussion from practice to theory. But Lundy weathered the setback, relocating to Texas in 1975 and working as a design principal at the Dallas-based architecture firm, HKS. The move, and changing architectural ideologies, may have taken the architect off the national radar, but Lundy is irrepressible. He keeps designing through paint and drawings. “I am excited by what lies ahead,” he says. “I don’t have a computer—my computer is the ebony pencil I am holding.”
Ten Things You Should Know About Victor A. Lundy
1. As a soldier, Lundy met a captured Nazi officer who was an architect. The German’s knowledge of the designs of Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe encouraged Lundy to meet with Gropius at Harvard.
2. Wounded in battle (for which he was awarded a Purple Heart Medal), Lundy was sent to a hospital at Stourport-On-Severn in England. There, a doctor taken with Lundy’s drawing skills enlisted him to make medical drawings.
3. Upon meeting Gropius for the first time, Lundy was taken aback by the architect’s appearance. “He looked just like the Germans we has been fighting,” he recalled.
4. Introduced to Le Corbusier while traveling in Europe, Lundy balked at the icon’s work. Postwar Villa Savoye, Poissy was in disrepair, and he described the lauded Salvation Army Headquarters in Paris as “horrible, bad-smelling rooms.”
5. Lundy’s wife lying on her side was the inspiration for the Atomic Energy Commission pavilion. Installed in Buenos Aires, Argentina, a protester scrawled “Viva Castro” on its flank.
6. Asked to submit a design for the Church of the Resurrection, Harlem, Lundy took a taxi up to the then-dicey neighborhood for a meeting. He was the only one to show up, so he got the commission.
7. Lundy liked to keep his firm small. His Manhattan office was usually made up of four guys—an international mix of Brazilians, Germans, and GSD grads.
8. The balloon-like “air flowers” at the New York World’s Fair impressed architect Philip Johnson, who built the iconic New York State Pavilion at Flushing Meadows. Lundy remembers he said: “We spent millions of dollars on all this heavy stuff and you did it by air.”
9. The embassy in Sri Lanka took twenty-three years to complete—long enough to outlast seven ambassadors—but eventually won the Presidential Design Award.
10. Lundy’s wife, Anstis is a noted watercolorist represented by a Houston gallery. In 2004, the pair remodeled an old stone house in arty Marfa, TX.