PLAN 78:
Peter Samton (BArch'57) And Jordan Gruzen (BArch'57)

Loyal Partners, Loyal Donors

Peter Samton and Jordan Gruzen – partners in the award-winning Gruzen Samton Architects LLP – have been loyal donors to SA+P over the decades. Their giving has had an impact on the Dean’s Innovation Fund (programs and activities), the Architecture Discretionary Fund (Department of Architecture), the Dickson Fund (for graduate student support), the Anderson (1930) Fellowship Fund (for graduate fellowships), the Belluschi Memorial Fund (for the Belluschi lecture series) and the Studio 24 Fund (for travel studio experiences). SA+P Development and Communications Associate Stephanie Hatch recently spoke with the two of them about their history, their work, their advice for this year’s graduates and their generosity. Below, some excerpts from that conversation:

Stephanie Hatch: How did the two of you meet, originally?

Peter Samton: We met at MIT in 1952. We were both in the same freshman class and later in the same fraternity and started in the School of Architecture + Planning. At that time Pietro Belluschi was dean and Lawrence Anderson was head of the department. It was quite an exciting time.

Jordan Gruzen: Like many students in our field, we would spend the whole night in the architecture department. Marvin Goody [MArch’51], one of our influential instructors, would be up with us playing his kazoo. Ralph Dopmeyer [BArch’59], our classmate, lived in the drafting room. Peter was the MIT station’s disc jockey, playing classical music.

PS: I had a program called “Intermezzo” and I’d be on late in the evening. The soothing music helped our long charrettes working through the night.

SH: What was SA+P like in those days?

PS: We had a small but very international class. One student was Kyu Lee [BArch’57], an architect from Korea by way of Japan’s royal family. He was pretender to the throne of Korea. He was my roommate and a very good designer. Another classmate was from Tehran. When we did work for the Shah in 1976, the four of us had a reunion in Tehran. The internationality of our class opened our eyes to the larger world.

JG: Early on I appreciated the opportunities for a broad-based education. MIT is a school in which to develop the complete person. We were very focused on this diversity of education. I took as many courses in planning, art, music, and philosophy as I did in architecture. We had as professor Eduardo Catalano, who was a very good teacher, but very, very tough. He fit into MIT because his architecture had structural underpinnings. We also learned much in other disciplines from Lloyd Rodwin and Kevin Lynch in planning and Gyorgy Kepes in art.

SH: How did you come to work together?

PS: After MIT we both had Fulbright scholarships to Europe: Jordan to Italy and I to France. Afterward I went into the Army for a brief period. I worked for Hugh Stubbins in Boston, Marcel Breuer in New York, and on my own becoming a finalist with my brother Claude and the architect Abe Geller on the FDR Memorial competition. Jordan joined Kelly & Gruzen with his father [B. Sumner Gruzen, BArch’26, MArch’28]. A few years later I joined the firm as well. By 1963 Kelly & Gruzen was engaged in a lot of public sector, high-density residential, university, and school work. Jordan and I became partners in 1967 and brought in other partners. We changed our name to Gruzen and Partners, then The Gruzen Partnership. In 1986 it became Gruzen Samton, as it is known today.

JG: It was interesting how Peter and I got a foothold in the firm. Normally architecture graduates would come into the firm and for 10-15 years we would work into more responsibility. Because of our relationship, we had things thrown at us which were well beyond our experience, but we did very well. The two of us were invited into the Central Park Stables competition by Mayor Lindsay in the 1960s. We were competing against Marcel Breuer, Conklin and Rossant, Philip Johnson, and other top firms. I.M. Pei was on the jury. We won the competition with our totally underground design (an early green design feature). We were only 30 years old, sailing high, feeling positive about the changes we were going to make in the firm.

SH: What’s the basic philosophy of your firm?

PS: It has never been just one or two stars, but a group of diversified partners who work together in team practice. When we were at MIT, one of the important firms of the time was The Architects’ Collaborative formed by Walter Gropius. It impressed us that he worked not as a single practitioner, but as part of a team. Gruzen Samton has always aspired to putting experts together in a similar way. We have always felt that this was a collaboration of equals working well together with a common trait of working for excellent design.

SH: What sort of work are you doing these days?

PS: Our Washington office focuses largely on public sector work. In the New York office we do university work – MIT, Columbia, Cornell, Yale, City University of New York – and a lot of public and private school work. There has always been a need for new and innovative school construction. Additionally, we’ve done a lot of work for the elderly for which we have created innovative design over nearly 50 years.

JG: Other areas of substantial design are hotels, high-rise residential, justice facilities, transportation and infrastructure and large-scale community planning. We spent three years in Dubai designing a waterfront new city, which was the largest being created at the time. In Shanghai we created a village of housing surrounding a national tennis center.

PS: We are doing a number of large projects right now. For example, we are the architect of record for the School of Management at Yale in association with Norman Foster, the design architect.

JG: Two years ago the firm decided to enter into a strategic alliance with IBI Group, a 2700-person professional group headquartered in Toronto. We found that we could simultaneously do two things – continue to practice at the same scale that we were used to, but also have the resources to reach out for more. We are now part of a large international organization with offices in 65 locations around the world.

SH: You’ve been very generous to SA+P over the years. What motivates you in that?

PS: We have a lot to thank MIT for. Jordan and I met there. I started there knowing next to nothing about the profession and I always had a great appreciation for MIT. Architecture is taught as an original subject at MIT. They don’t copy other schools. Other schools had a set way of looking at the world of architecture, but MIT was interested in bettering the world and not necessarily for doing houses for the rich, but to help. John de Monchaux was the dean when the School did a lot of housing work, such as prefab construction in Africa. MIT works through the world helping underprivileged people and underdeveloped countries. MIT is where my professional history began and those early classes have guided me ever since.

SH: Any advice for new graduates?

JG: Don’t get pigeon-holed and don’t become a narrow technocrat. Take a wide variety of subject matter. Become a very broadly interested human being. If your professional life is to become anything like ours, you will be on community boards and involved in sales, as well as being a creative person involved in social issues. You will want to have a broad foundation.

PS: The atmosphere at MIT is very conducive to that. Architecture is a very extroverted profession on one level, and introverted on another level. Getting other people’s thoughts and ideas is important. You don’t design a building in isolation. You want to know the thinking of other people and incorporate it in your design work. You need to be both a sprinter and a long distance runner, and the challenge sometimes while daunting, brings great satisfaction.