Andrew Geller, a quixotic American architect and designer, died Christmas Day, 2011. He was a good friend and inspiration to many.
I couldn’t believe my eyes when I first saw his houses on the beaches of Long Island, especially the Pearlroth House rising over the dunes of Westhampton Beach: twin boxes tilted on point with a candy-striped chimney in between — he called it the “square brassiere” or “double box kite.” Then there was the Hunt House on Fire Island, a single box on point, raised on locust posts.
It was 1986, the peak of postmodernist delirium, and I was preparing a book and exhibition on the forgotten modernist architects of Long Island. I despised the neo-shingle style with its faux Palladian windows and Victorian gazebos that was flooding the market at that point. Robert Motherwell’s house and studio in East Hampton, the only extant work in America by Pierre Chareau, had just been heinously demolished to make way for an “Adirondack-style” McMansion. The idea was therefore to prove that Long Island, just as much as Southern California, had been a crucial breeding ground for modern design by highlighting as many examples as I could find and showing how these houses needed to be protected by preservationists and local legislators.
I was hoping for maybe a dozen to 20 good examples, but the more I dug the more I uncovered forgotten works by William Muschenheim, Marcel Breuer, Peter Blake, Philip Johnson, Alexander Knox, George Nelson, Gordon Bunshaft, Robert Rosenberg, Paul Lester Wiener, Julian and Barbara Neski, and others. It was one thing to discover houses by word of mouth or snooping down winter lanes hoping to catch a glimpse of a cantilevered porch, flat roof, or floor-to-ceiling window peeking out behind a privet hedge, but it was even harder to find original archival material — drawings, photographs, scale models — that I would be able to use in an exhibit.
Someone had mentioned Andrew Geller’s name, but I thought they meant Abe Geller, another architect who’d also designed houses on Long Island, so I was late in realizing the misunderstanding and finally drove out to Northport in October 1986 to meet Andrew for the first time.
His wife, Shirley, greeted me at the door and said, “He’s been waiting for you,” with a twinkle in her eye. I found him sitting there in the living room of his Victorian house surrounded by hundreds of sketches, plans, perspective renderings, and beautifully crafted models. He’d saved everything he’d ever done and it felt as if I’d finally hit the mother lode.
When the “Long Island Modern” show opened in 1987, Robert A.M. Stern criticized me for including Geller’s work. It wasn’t part of the accepted canon. He was an outsider, wasn’t properly trained, was more of an industrial designer, illustrator, etc. Peter Blake accused him of stealing his idea for the Pinwheel House, which was nonsense, but a certain amount of resentment must have been stirred up by the fact that Geller’s work had been published in mainstream, high-circulation magazines like Life, Sports Illustrated, and Esquire, the publication where Geller published his “Esquire Weekend House,” an ingenious little box on stilts that could be dismantled and towed behind a bachelor’s sports car. In fact, this had been the source of Blake’s feigned outrage. He even wrote a blistering letter to the editors, who thought it amusing and pinned it to their bulletin board.
As far as I know, Geller’s houses were never published in “professional” magazines like Architectural Record and certainly not Architectural Forum while Blake was editor in chief.
Geller posed something of a threat to the status quo. He was incredibly prolific, experimental, friendly, never took himself too seriously, could be irreverent, and even had dared to live a normal family life on suburban Long Island. He was successful in his own right, well outside the inner sanctum of the design world. He wasn’t practiced in the priestly double-speak of the architectural establishment. He didn’t care. He had the nerve to be playful, make jokes, have fun, be funny, breezy, light, even joyful.
He’d made up his own rules and didn’t care much what the mainstream thought of him. During the week he slaved away for Raymond Loewy, who knew a good thing when he saw one and kept Geller cranking out shopping centers and department stores.
But there were weekends and Geller, who never seemed to rest, found his own kind of clients and worked during his free time designing simple but experimental little houses that were low-budget and low-maintenance. Indeed, these works defined a transitional period of American domestic architecture that lay somewhere between the flat-roofed, glass pavilions of neo-Bauhaus (Bunshaft, early Johnson, Blake, et al.) and a younger generation of ’60s neo-Cubist, neo-Corb modernism as recycled by Gwathmey, Meier, and the New York Five.
Sure, he was sometimes uneven, but so was Picasso. Geller could be an irritant, a speck of sand in the establishment’s eye. They were hoping he would just fly away, disappear somehow, but he didn’t. His freshness and originality kept popping up again and again, being “rediscovered,” until he was able to claim his own level of notoriety and acclaim.
In the end, America prefers the mythology of the outsider: Melville, Thoreau, Woody Guthrie, Kerouac (who also lived in Northport), Jackson Pollock, James Dean, etc., and I predict that as Geller’s work becomes better known it will find its place within the canon of American originals — architects such as Bruce Goff, John Lautner, Paolo Soleri, Mark Mills, Mickey Muennig, E. Fay Jones — all of them outsiders, and in this regard it’s fortunate that his grandson Jake Gorst has perpetuated Geller’s legacy through his tireless archiving, documentary filmmaking, and preservation efforts.
Andy will be greatly missed by all of his family, friends, and admirers. He was a sweet and loving man of many talents. May he rest in peace.
Alastair Gordon published a monograph on Andrew Geller’s work called “Beach Houses: Andrew Geller” in 2003. He is an award-winning author, critic, curator, and filmmaker who has written about architecture and environmental design issues for many publications including The Wall Street Journal and The Star. This piece first appeared on Alastair Gordon’s blog, Wall to Wall, on Dec. 26.