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An Interview with Architect Charles Hummel
Charles Hummel is related to one of the most famous architectural firms in the West. His father was an architect and his grandfather designed the Idaho Capitol building. Charles is now retired. This interview took place in the summer of 2003.

 

charles hummel

When did you know you wanted to be an architect?

Growing up in the late 30's and 40's , we were at war. It is very hard to reconstruct what that was like. Every boy in school knew he was going to be in the army or the navy so we weren't thinking about careers when we went into the service, but when we got out of the service we were all of a sudden really thinking about what we were going to do.

It was during the war that I decided I wanted to go into architecture. My Parents never influenced me directly.

I did know that the old order in architecture wasn't working anymore in terms of what it meant to be modern. That was reinforced by the philosophy of teaching. That was, what really mattered in architecture was what is now called the "International Style" although I don't think the term was used then.

Who were your heroes?

Our heroes were Walter Gropius, Mies , Le Corbusier. Those were the people we were paying attention to. Neo-classicism and the eclectic styles that imitated older styles were a dead end. That's what was going on in architecture historically anyway.

charles hummel

I began to become increasingly aware of what was happening to the growth in the city and that became a preoccupation of mine later on in regard to trying not to reproduce Los Angeles.

How important is the client to good architecture?
Unfortunately, architects have to have a client. If you do nothing but paper architecture, you don't have to worry about what your client thinks, or the size of the client's pocketbook. All of a sudden you realize that in the real world, great architecture is the marriage between a great client and a great architect. You have to have the two.

A lot of people got hooked on Ayn Rand's thing, which is of course bunk.Let's face it, it's fascist supremacist philosophy, the heroic architect killing himself because his dream is not being realized. I haven't met very many architects who immolated themselves because some detail of their design didn't get approved.

In the execution of a project there are always things that have to be toned down or modified in some way to please some interest other than your own thought. The important thing is to have a client who is as enthusiastic about the project as you are. Without that, you are nowhere.

What are some buildings that work or don't work for you?
I can't speak for the whole state, but in the Boise area there are some buildings that don't make it real well. One that just doesn't make it at all is the Grove Hotel. Somebody said about the color, "well, we've got the primer coat on, what are we going to do about the rest of the painting?". The building is a visual insult to the city. It's inept. It violated the well-known standard for Capital Boulevard development. The city fathers allowed that to happen.

charles hummel

I hesitate to say this about another building, but the new Ada County Courthouse doesn't make it. If you need to be dropped off and picked up for a quick trip, to file something, there is no way to do that. You can't have someone drop you off in front if you are handicapped; or if you need to catch a bus, there is no bus lane or a taxi driveway to let you off. And now you see people taking their lives into their hands running across the street because the parking arrangements are inadequate.

One building I've always admired is the Supreme Court building. Designed by Dick Hosford, it's a building in a particular style that was very much in mode in the 60's. It's just an elegant building, and the state should be proud to have it.

The Wells Fargo Bank building I like a lot. The pointy corner, they could have done without that. That was a Houston, Texas, architect who did that building. It's an Oppenheimer Development Company building. It's very interesting, the triangular plan and that wonderful garden. I did the underground parking garage. We had to collaborate, of course, with the Houston architects and structural engineers because the parking garage and the building are integrated in some ways. It had to be designed to support this garden and all that landscaping on the top.

What do you think of Idaho architects as a whole?

In terms of architecture in general, we're in the same position as architects everywhere. Architects ceased to be the king pins long ago. I am skeptical where architecture is going in general, but not necessarily here.

The University of Idaho in recent years has not seen fit to award contracts to Idaho architects. That hasn't sat well with Idaho architects, many of whom were trained at the U of I.

The big projects always attract the stars. It's also a function of the financing. If a project in Idaho requires major out of state financing, the financing institutions are not about to entrust a major investment to a firm they don't know anything about. They tend to want to use the firms they are used to. The Grove Hotel is an example.

American Institute of Architects Idaho chapter tries real hard to elevate the design ability of Idaho architecture with the bi-ennial awards program that is juried by out of state people. We find a lot of really innovative, neat things going around the state. I think in that sense the design ability of Idaho architects is improving, and the profession is consciously trying
to elevate that.

Architects are not vocal enough. I think architects have a duty to bring to people's attention what ought to be done to preserve the urban fabric. Architects generally accept the commission, do the job, collect the fee and move on to the next job and don't necessarily tell the city fathers what's good for them.

Since the Renaissance, architects became very much identified with their buildings. That's gradually disappeared. The architect had a certain glamour. The profession still has a certain prestige, maybe undeserved, today.