Morris Adjmi

Photo by Lisa Mahar

"I try to understand how we can weave the old and the new together."

Morris Adjmi is an architect based in New York City. After studying architecture at Tulane University, Adjmi began his career working with Italian architect Aldo Rossi. In 1986, they opened the Studio di Architettura in New York. Adjmi and Rossi collaborated on many international projects, including the Hotel Il Palazzo in Fukuoka, Japan, Disney’s Celebration Office Complex in Orlando, Florida, and the Scholastic Corporation headquarters in New York City. In 1997, Adjmi opened his own architecture and interior design firm in New York City called Morris Adjmi Architects. His firm is recognized for its industrial and modernist design sense as well as its inclusion of contemporary art and sustainable elements. Since its inception, Morris Adjmi Architects has worked on commercial, residential, and hospitality projects in New York City and beyond, including the Wythe Hotel in Williamsburg, The Theory Building in the Meatpacking District, NYU Wilf Hall in Greenwich Village, Front & York in Dumbo, and The Rockaway Hotel.

In this interview, Morris Adjmi reveals what it was like being mentored by Aldo Rossi, how he builds a great team, and the biggest challenges of an architectural project.

TGL: How was your childhood?

MA: I grew up in New Orleans, which is a beautiful city architecturally. From the small shotgun houses and cottages to the very big houses, I have always been inspired by its architecture. I was always building things as a child. I would make pyramids in the living room and climb on top. A lot of kids like to make forts, but I really wanted to create spaces that someone could inhabit.

When I was eight years old, I went on a school trip to one of the oldest parts of the city, Vieux Carré in the French Quarter. I was sketching all the columns, and the teacher explained to me that there are different orders for the columns. It was fascinating to me that they had rules for these columns. That's my earliest memory of being so aware of architecture and architectural components. I also remember when I was a little older, I got into a friend's mother's car. It was a Volvo, and everything was square and perfectly aligned. I thought, oh, this is so cool. So I have always been interested in the shapes and what made things the way they were. 

TGL: Where did you study architecture?

MA: I went to the School of Architecture at Tulane University in New Orleans. My girlfriend at the time decided to study abroad at the Sorbonne. I thought, I should go somewhere too. I grew up in New Orleans. I went to school in New Orleans. I was fascinated by Aldo Rossi's work, so I did some research. I saw that he was teaching at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies in New York, so I applied, they accepted me, and my school let me go. I was only supposed to go for six months, but after studying in New York for six months, it was impossible to go back. My school told me I may not get all my credit, but I said, “That's okay. I'd rather stay."

That summer, I went to visit my girlfriend in France, and she left me while we were traveling in Italy. I was alone, so I called Aldo in Milan and he said, "Come by. We need help building a model for a competition in Berlin.” We won the competition. I thought I was only going to stay for three weeks, but I stayed and worked for Aldo. I stayed for about a year and a half. I left for half a year to finish school and then went back to Milan for another year and a half, so I stayed three years total.

TGL: What did Europe teach you about architecture?

MA: A lot of cities were destroyed after the war in Europe. Europe taught me that history can be a part of our current designs and constructions. In a lot of the cities that were rebuilt, you see new architecture, but it’s architecture that is comfortable in its surroundings. The new is woven into the old fabric. That was a mature and enlightened approach to history, which wasn’t done as well in America. That's what I try to do, I try to understand how we can weave the old and the new together.

TGL: How would you describe your collaboration with Aldo Rossi?

MA: Without Aldo, I wouldn't be doing what I do now. He was fundamental to creating the foundation of my work. My vision is built on understanding the cities, the context, and how we build. My rational approach to organization comes directly from him. Initially, his language was specific to his region of Lombardia, but in later phases he started to incorporate his experiences, whether it was a lighthouse in Maine or a steeple in Germany, into his lexicon of forms. I look at art for inspiration. Rather than having a limited vocabulary of architectural elements, which he worked with very well, I broadened my view. The organization presents itself in different ways in all of my projects. We are publishing a book called A Grid in a Conversation, because the grid is the organizing principle of a project but the conversation is the dialogue between the building and its surroundings or the building and its history or the building and its relationship to, say, art.

TGL: Who were other architects that influenced you?

MA: It's hard to restrict that to a simple list. My typical answer is anonymous architects. I like to look at the fabric of a city, I'm always looking at details and windows and cornices and the way things are built. There is a long history of vernacular architecture around the world which has been upset by this idea that we can only have one architecture for the whole world. It doesn't make sense because climates are different, histories are different, and people are different. Architecture should reflect those things and reflect its time. But I also love Gunnar Asplund and Etienne-Louis Boullée. 

TGL: You opened your own agency in 1997. What was your first project?

MA: I opened the office right after Aldo died. I was mostly doing interior architecture for a lot of advertising agencies. The first real architecture project I did was the Theory Building in the Meatpacking District for Charles Blaichman in 2003.

TGL: How many people are on your team?

MA: We have about 112 employees and two offices, one in New York City and a small one in New Orleans.

TGL: How do you build a great team?

MA: I meet everybody we hire. It's a given that everybody is talented and capable, but they also have to be nice. If you don't have nice people, then you don't want to work. I strive to create an environment in the office where people want to be here and enjoy being together. When they're working, it doesn't feel like work. It feels like they're doing what they're passionate about. 

TGL: What is the biggest challenge of an architectural project?

MA: The most challenging aspect of what we do is that we have to work within a certain budget. I have only had one project where we didn't have a budget. That was a project in Japan for Il Palazzo Hotel, which I did with Aldo Rossi. They never questioned anything. Solid stone columns, gold leaf for the bar, anything. Since then, every project has had a tight budget. It takes a lot of patience and editing to get the budget where it needs to be. Sometimes it helps you, because it makes you more honest and more disciplined.

TGL: How does New York inspire you?

MA: The energy here is amazing. That was one of the hardest things for me in Italy, everything closed early and things weren't open on the weekends. The idea that portions of your life are regulated by some schedule seems crazy to me. If you want to go out to eat at 3 o’clock in the morning in New York, no problem. If you want to go shopping on a Sunday, no problem. Everything is accessible. And art is always present, I see art every weekend. Art stimulates me the most and inspires me to do the type of work that we do.

TGL: You created an art space in your office and organize exhibitions. How did you come up with this idea?

MA: As I mentioned, creating an environment where people want to be is important to me. When we were moving, we had a lot of sketches of our work on the wall. When we started to take them down, I realized that we couldn’t just take something that was up for ten years and put it right back up in a new space. So I said, "Put all of it in a box and throw it away." I had this idea of starting fresh. I have a collection of Aldo Rossi’s drawings, so it started with an exhibition of those drawings to launch the office and show everybody where my point of view started and how this was the foundation for the office. 

After that, I thought, if we do this a couple of times a year, we can change the environment, stimulate our employees, staff, and clients, and connect some of the artists with customers, our clients, and developers. At our second show, we sold a very large piece by Matthias Van Arkel, and the client put it up in the lobby of one of our buildings. That was satisfying because now we had artwork we liked in the space we designed. That became part of what we did informally. After 10 shows, it became evident that it was part of our DNA. We thought, why not do this as a real service? It's been very successful so far. We did all the art selection for a big club that we designed. We are doing the art selection for a very large residential building we're designing right now. We're going to help a private client pick the art for their penthouse. It's just one more piece of the environment that we can help edit the materials for.

TGL: What kind of building would you like to build in the future?

MA: A museum.

TGL: Who would you like to have dinner with that you don’t already know?

MA: I'd like to have dinner with Brian Eno. I think it’s fascinating that he has gone from glam rock to art rock to working with Talking Heads and U2 and a lot of very talented composers. He has also created art that is self-generating based on music and colors, so it would be interesting to hear his opinions about architecture. 

Brian Eno creates ambient music, and I like to appropriate the term for what I do: ambient architecture. Ambient music floats in and out of your consciousness. I think architecture today is too loud. We can find a way to make a statement without being disruptive or aggressive. 

TGL: What advice would you like to give to The Genius List’s readers?

MA: I went to Antarctica three years ago, and it was the most amazing experience. Antarctica is almost devoid of color, it's this white blue, and it's immense. I came up with this phrase one day: Live in the moment. It's not a novel idea, but a lot of people don't see it. I go to a concert or an art gallery or into nature, and everybody's taking pictures because they feel the need to share their experience. We should share the experience with ourself first. We should enjoy and appreciate our time and where we are. So live in the moment.