The Next Starchitect?
How do you build a shockingly successful career in architecture before the age of 45? (Hint: It helps to have gobs of talent, Frank Gehry’s phone number, and the best last name in Minnesota.)
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Yep, there it is: Jim’s full name is James G. Dayton. He’s on the board of the Walker Art Center, for instance, and an alumnus of the Weisman board. He’s acquainted with many of the city’s homegrown art stars—such as Todd Norsten, David Rathman, Warren MacKenzie, Maren Kloppmann—having curated the maiden show in the new Minnetonka Center for the Arts. (Jim called Walker chief curator Philippe Vergne and local supergallery owner Martin Weinstein for advice.) A series of Norsten drawings hangs across from Jim’s desk, right next to the print by modern titan and Neo-Dadaist Robert Rauschenberg. The Motherwell—a typical black-and-white, geometric abstraction—hides out in a kind of window between stacks of design and art books. And the splash of a print by heralded sculptor Richard Serra? That’s not even in the office proper, but laying low outside the less-trafficked of two doors.
Jim had the chance to meet Serra—“It’s like talking to Michelangelo,” he says—through their mutual friend Frank Gehry. Gehry, it should be said, is not just a friend to Jim but a mentor. The postmodern eminence hired Jim straight out of architecture school at the University of Virginia, and kept him busy in Southern California for five years. Of course, Gehry wasn’t always an eminence: Back then, his greatest renown came from hanging crap like chainlink and corrugated metal outside his 1920s bungalow in Santa Monica. The shop was smaller in the early ’90s—just 30-odd architects—before Gehry laid the golden (or, rather, titanium) egg that is the Guggenheim Bilbao.
Now, with the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, almost 200 employees, and what must be a $2 billion to-do list, Gehry casts a shadow only slightly smaller than the moon during a total eclipse of the sun. Yet Jim can claim to have placed a piece of art on Gehry’s wall: a drawing of a pink alligator that Jim’s 8-year-old daughter Emma scribbled with the great man while sitting on the floor one afternoon.
Jim might have stayed in Los Angeles. He’d even managed to wrangle a little ice time out there as a member of Gehry’s office hockey club, the F.O.G. (named after Frank O. Gehry), an erstwhile touring squad that boasted a retired Montreal Canadien and one of the lesser Hulls.
But his wife Megan, an architect herself, did not love L.A., and she had her own business plan. “She came in one night,” Jim recalls, “and said, ‘I’m moving to Wayzata. You can come with me or stay here.’” Jim hadn’t lived in Minnesota since he was 15, when he decamped to the East Coast, first to boarding school at Hotchkiss in Connecticut, and then to Yale. Yet there he was one Christmas vacation, tooling around in the car—two architects going house shopping, that must have been fun. That’s what landed him in a mid-century house in Wayzata, the unofficial seat of the Daytons. If he’d wanted to get any closer to the place where he grew up, he would have had to move back into his old room.
Here’s a variation on a theme: the story of how Jim Dayton won the commission to design the Minnetonka Center for the Arts. “I probably had no right doing the arts center,” he starts—then pauses and adds, “when I did.”
He continues, “Now, it would be a great project for me. But then, God, I had, like, no staff and no computers. But my aunt”—that would be Sherry Ann Dayton—“was on the board and some of the people that were out here knew that I’d moved back to town, and that I’d come from Frank Gehry’s office. They had a design that they didn’t really like from another firm. They left a very disgruntled board meeting, and she called me and said, ‘Would you be interested in helping us work on this project?’ And I said, ‘Are you kidding?’”
There’s a dirty little word for this kind of transaction; it starts with an “N” and ends with “-epotism.” But then the Minnetonka Center for the Arts is, by all accounts, a highly successful building: attractive with its Gehryish steel panels, practical with its concrete floors and exterior display wall, and adaptable for art instruction and exhibition in just about any discipline.
With the lionization of the modern brand-name architect—a legacy of Gehry as much as anyone—it’s easy to forget that these draftsmen aren’t potentates bestowing gifts. What they are is freelance employees. It seems significant, then, that Dayton’s clients are happy, very happy, close to ecstatic if you ask them. John Gulla, headmaster at the Blake School, characterizes the Dayton-designed remake of the school’s Highcroft Campus as a “dream project.” He points to serendipities in the details: the way children play in the shifting beams of skylight; the way the oil on their stubby fingers colors the copper cladding outside.
Beth Hower, who chaired the project planning group and is the director of Blake’s early childhood programs, praises not just the product but the process. Blake’s Lower School, she explains, follows an educational theory that emphasizes a holistic agenda that can be expressed through the languages of art, drama, models, and metaphor. Dayton boned up on this philosophy and incorporated it into his proposals. In this spirit, the expansion claimed as small of a footprint as possible, maximizing the available play areas, and elevating the arts classrooms out of the basement, both literally and figuratively.
Does it really matter, then, that Dayton was himself a Blake student, that a cousin is now on the board, and that his daughter and son represent the fourth generation of Daytons to attend the school? “If the work isn’t interesting and appealing to people, you’re not going to get anywhere,” Millett, the critic, says. “You have to have some measure of talent.”
“A lot of architecture is about social connections,” he elaborates. “When Cass Gilbert”—designer of the state capitol and the U.S. Supreme Court building—“was working in St. Paul in the 19th century, he cofounded the Minnesota Club to make connections with these movers and shakers. Because those are the people who tend to commission buildings—especially larger buildings. Traditionally, many architects have come from socially prominent families, like Richard Morris Hunt in the 19th century. And Philip Johnson’s family”—Johnson designed the IDS Center in 1968—“was very prominent. It’s a complicated process by which architects get commissions, sometimes based on real talent and sometimes on other factors.” Millett laughs: “Welcome to the real world!”
Even with his connections, Dayton doesn’t spend a lot of time mocking up ski villas for Minnesota’s moneyed class. One junior architect at Dayton’s firm, James Dayton Design, actually wonders why more residential jobs don’t roll in on the friends and family plan. In fact, you get the feeling that Dayton tries to duck such commissions.
The truth is that Dayton reviles the idea of being known mainly as a descendant of George Draper Dayton. “The name has gone off the store,” he says, “which is maybe a good thing. It frees up a little more room in the phone book for my office…. I hope my grandkids will [be asked], Are you related to that architect? Not, There used to be a store named after your family 150 years ago.”