Architect and Author Peter Blake, 86; Catholic U. Professor

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 7, 2006

Peter Blake, 86, a modernist architect, a prolific writer and a former professor and dean at Catholic University, died of complications from a respiratory infection Dec. 5 at Connecticut Hospice in Branford, Conn.

A lifelong adherent of the modernist movement in architecture, he believed in the beauty of clean lines and the elegance of simple, functional forms -- in both his architecture and his writing. With Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and other modernist icons he knew and admired, he also believed that architecture had a social function, that its purpose was to make life better for those who lived and worked in the structures that architects create.

The "modern movement" -- the label he preferred to "modernist movement" -- was much more than a style, he insisted. "It was a commitment to help change the world, nothing less," he wrote in his memoir, "No Place Like Utopia: Modern Architecture and the Company We Kept" (1993).

The author of 17 books and numerous columns and articles, he was a man of many opinions, strongly held and expressed in lively, engaging prose. "He believed it was possible to say something serious and be accessible," said his son, Casey Blake, a professor of American studies at Columbia University.

His most notable books include "The Master Builders: Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright" (1960), a history of modern architecture still used in classes, and "God's Own Junkyard: The Planned Deterioration of America's Landscape" (1964). The latter decried the influence of the billboard industry, polluters and perpetrators of sprawl.

"This is a guy who needs to be better known," said Alastair Gordon, a writer and architecture critic. "He was the voice of a whole generation of designers and architects."

As a practicing architect, he designed more than 50 buildings, including a house he built for himself in 1954 in the middle of a potato field on eastern Long Island. He called it the Pin Wheel House, because of its shape and the way the four walls could be slid open on steel tracks. Only 24 feet square, the two-bedroom house was raised four feet off the ground to provide a distant view of the ocean. During hurricane season, it could be closed up like a box.

With the Pin Wheel House and other designs, he deferred to the natural landscape. It was a lesson he learned from Wright, a man characterized, in Mr. Blake's words, by "monumental arrogance," "overbearing ignorance" and "a talent simply unequaled in this century, and in much of the architecture of the past."

Other significant Blake structures included a mental hospital in Binghamton, N.Y., an experimental theater at Vanderbilt University and an old gymnasium at Catholic University that he transformed into the Edward M. Crough Center for Architectural Studies. He was an honorable mention entrant in the 1982 competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

He was born Peter Jost Blach in Berlin to a prosperous Jewish family. In 1933, the newly elected Nazi government kicked the family out of the country, and Mr. Blake ended up in London. He received an undergraduate degree in mathematics from the University of London in 1938 and studied at the Regent Street Polytechnic School of Architecture in London in 1939.

Receiving a scholarship to the school of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, he became a protege and lifelong admirer of Louis Kahn, one of America's most influential modern architects. He received his architecture degree from Penn in 1941 and a degree in architecture, with honors, from Pratt Institute in 1949.

In 1944, he became a naturalized U.S. citizen, changed his name from Blach to Blake and enlisted in the Army. After training as an intelligence officer at Camp Ritchie in Maryland, he was shipped to Europe, where he was among the first U.S. troops to enter Berlin, shortly after Hitler killed himself.

Mr. Blake stayed in the Army until 1947, when he returned to New York. He soon settled on the eastern end of Long Island among a group of artists, architects and writers that included Jackson Pollack, Robert Motherwell and Willem De Kooning. Pollack became a close friend and major influence.

"It was a great time to be alive, and all of us sensed it," Mr. Blake recalled in his memoir. "With the war over, the country -- indeed, the world -- seemed ready to accept new ideas, in all the arts, that had somehow failed to develop during the oppressive thirties."

In 1948, Mr. Blake became head of the Museum of Modern Art's department of architecture and design. From 1950 to 1972, he was first a writer for and then editor of the influential journal Architectural Forum. After its demise, he created a short-lived successor, Architecture Plus. It folded in 1975.

In the late 1950s, Mr. Blake, Buckminster Fuller and other prominent American architects were part of a design team that put together an exhibition of American cultural achievements to be shown in Moscow, including a typical suburban house. Its model kitchen was where, in 1959, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev famously shook his fist at then-Vice President Richard M. Nixon in the Kitchen Debate.

As Mr. Blake described the incident, "the vice president of the United States, a visitor to a foreign land that he knew only from hearsay, took it upon himself to deliver an arrogant lecture to his host -- a man who was totally mystified as to what had so suddenly made his guest so ill-mannered."

Mr. Blake became chairman of the department of architecture and planning at Catholic University in 1979 and also taught there until 1991.

In "No Place Like Utopia," he described Washington as "a city almost devoid of culture." Washington Post architecture critic Benjamin Fogery had suggested a few years earlier that "he seems to have hated the place," although Mr. Blake's son, noting that his father had many friends in Washington, described it as "more of a love-hate relationship."

He moved to Connecticut after leaving Catholic University and continued to write books and articles, as well as regular columns for New York magazine and Interior Design.

The modern movement, to Mr. Blake's great regret, gave way to postmodernism, which he considered an abomination, and then to deconstructivism and other "isms." In his view, they all failed to live up to the ideals that he believed were intrinsic to the modern movement.

"Wouldn't it be refreshing to start from scratch -- to start from the First Principles that were once so crystal-clear?" he mused in the closing line of his memoir.

His marriages, to Martha Howard, Petty Nelson Blake and Susan Tamulevich, ended in divorce.

Survivors include a daughter from his first marriage, Christina Blake Oliver of Newton, Mass., and his son, from the second marriage, of New York; a sister; five grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

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