When Palo Alto architect Stan Field meets with his chief project designer, the conversation usually centers on schematics, permits and computer models. And then the mishpoche comes up.
That’s because Field’s 33-year-old son, Jess, is a partner in Field Architecture, and a more amiable Jewish father-son business would be hard to find.
Together, the two have built a company that boasts projects around the world, from Silicon Valley homes to a winery in Argentina to a community center in the Fields’ native South Africa
“The common thread,” says Jess Field, “is not the type of building — wineries, homes or synagogues — but rather the common ground that connects [the building] to its environment. We call it ‘Groundscape,’ which is an attempt to dissolve the boundary between building and site.”
Though their professional partnership began only three years ago, the elder Field, 65, had already cemented his reputation starting in South Africa in the 1970s, followed by a decade-long tenure as chief architect of Jerusalem.
There he oversaw the construction of many synagogues, homes and official buildings, all the while establishing a permanent bond with Israel.
The Fields have been in the Bay Area since 1988, but both men still claim three countries — the United States, Israel and South Africa — as their own.
Stan Field was born in the coastal town of Port Elizabeth. His father had immigrated to South Africa from Latvia in advance of the Nazi invasion. “He was very rooted in Jewish community,” recalls Stan of his father, “and family was at the core of his beliefs. He built a shul in Port Elizabeth. I grew up under that great umbrella.”
He also grew up with a love of nature, given the picturesque terrain of South Africa.
“I came to architecture in a very natural way,” he recalls, “mainly the love of nature, the bush and the ocean, which stimulated my connection to the Earth. It seemed clear I needed something that had to do with making of environments.”
He studied at the University of Cape Town and later at the University of Pennsylvania under world-renowned architect Louis Kahn. Upon returning to South Africa, he began building homes and commercial developments, and also started a family.
The family moved to Jerusalem in 1978. As the city’s chief architect, his primary mission was to reconnect East and West Jerusalem.
“It was a no-man’s land from north to south,” he says. “The old Mandelbaum Gate was almost a minefield. It was two cities basically. The intention was to stitch this wound in the city together. It was challenge.”
Among his most important projects were Jerusalem’s urban design plan called the Seam, the Mount Zion spiritual complex in the Old City and the French Hill Synagogue.
“Everything in Jerusalem is about the whole and not about the part,” he says. “Every addition somehow goes to contributing to the totality of the city, which is very homogenous.”
An opportunity to teach in California led Stan Field to move his family to the Bay Area, but he says leaving Jerusalem was “probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. It’s not a place you ever leave. It’s the same with South Africa in a different way. Africa is in my blood, Jerusalem is in my soul.”
As for Jess Field, he remembers as a child he would pour over his father’s architectural plans spread out on the kitchen table. The art of design fascinated him even then.
After serving in the Israeli army, he earned a master’s in architecture from U.C. Berkeley and went on to win several awards, including the Eisner Prize in 2006. As a specialist in digital design, he taught at Cal and the College of Creative Arts in Oakland.
But the chance to work with his father led him to go in on Field Architecture.
One project that has brought them acclaim is the Ubuntu Center of Port Elizabeth, South Africa. It’s a multi-purpose community center in Stan’s hometown. The design earned the Fields a prestigious Progressive Architecture Award earlier this year. It is slated to open in time for soccer’s 2010 World Cup, to be held in South Africa next June.
As much success as the two have enjoyed, Stan Field scoffs at the “architect as superstar” meme that captivates the media these days. He says he is no “star-chitect.” And as for father and son working together, both admit it has always felt quite natural to do so.
“There was too phenomenal a synergy to ignore,” says Jess Field of the professional connection between the two men, adding that his father’s “starting point was similar to my own: a very deep connection to the natural environment. We both surf together to this day.”
Says Stan of his son: “He’s a nachas machine.”