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September 17, 2012

Vermont-born architect Marcel Beaudin never planned to design buildings. Trained as a draftsman for the monuments his family’s granite-quarrying business produced, Beaudin was working as a junior designer of tombstones and mausoleums in New York when a fellow sculptor introduced him to Le Corbusier, who was in New York designing the United Nations headquarters at the time. Thirty seconds in Le Corbusier’s studio convinced Beaudin to drop his pursuit of sculpture and enroll in the School of Architecture at Pratt Institute in 1949.

Architect Marcel Beaudin

Now 83, Beaudin has contributed a distinctly Modernist aesthetic to the architectural landscape of New England, using primarily indigenous materials to carve dwellings out of the mountainous Vermont terrain. Many of his buildings are situated on or above Lake Champlain, and his best-known public building, the Burlington Community Boathouse, requires a gangplank to access its views of the Adirondack Mountains. Operating under the “less is more” mantra, the federal buildings, universities, schools, and churches that bear his name express economy of form while employing organic, indigenous elements that are his trademark.

Nearly six decades after his pivotal meeting with Le Corbusier, Beaudin still goes to his office nearly every day, working on what he calls his last major project — a 100-room inn and hotel in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and an ambitious personal project to preserve a mural in Burlington, Vermont, modeled after the murals in Lithuanian synagogues destroyed during WWII.

Recount the effect Le Corbusier’s studio had on you.

I knew nothing of the International Bauhaus style, so when I met this tall guy with horn-rimmed glasses, I wasn’t really impressed—to me, he was just some guy. Then we walked into the studio itself and saw models made out of all kinds of materials—clay, wood, paper—with drawings on the wall and sketches on the table detailing his plans for the U.N. complex. That was just mind-blowing, because to me, architecture meant classical Greek and gothic designs. I’d never seen anything like this in Vermont, and didn’t realize that an architect didn’t have to design everything in classical format.

Your family quarried and fabricated granite for almost four centuries, and you grew up drafting designs for tombstones and mausoleums. How did that influence your early work?

As a kid, I learned the decorative side of things, and I thought in sculptural terms and concepts. At Pratt, I was sometimes criticized for using elements that weren’t strictly functional. I took historical and psychological considerations into account, because I felt they imparted a quality to a building that enhanced its functionality. My lecturers and teachers—among them, Gropius, Breuer, and van der Rohe—preferred form to follow function.

What object or design do you relate to most in your architecture? One of the things I enjoy doing most are stairs. I think of them as sculpture, with the use dictating the palette and materials you use. In residences I use a lot of native hardwoods, oak, maple, some cherry; for commercial work, I have gone to mostly steel, aluminum and glass.

You’ve been an avid sailor for many years; does that influence how you approach a building’s function?

I always pay attention to environmental concerns when I design, but I think being a sailor and being out in the weather keeps me dialed in to environmental concerns like prevailing winds and the sun.

How does working in Vermont affect your aesthetic sensibilities? The Vermont landscape provides materials that are very useful and ideal for building sustainable buildings with good weather-ability. I don’t know that I have a trademark style, but I’m a minimalist who believes in using indigenous materials. I try to evolve an aesthetic from the functional aspects of the building—and I’m as far away from Frank Gehry as you can possibly get. Architecture should be in context with the landscape, and it ought to look like it belongs. Utilizing the materials that naturally grow around a building goes a long way in making it look natural.

You’re starting to revisit projects you designed 50 years ago. Do you find that your tastes have changed over the years?

Absolutely. It’s a constant learning process. I look at some things I’ve done and shake my head, but it’s not like going from black to white. It’s an evolutionary process. When I remodel my original buildings, I try to do something that’s sympathetic to the original, to the point that when I’m through, it looks like the add-on is part of the original building. I think architects today as a group—not all of them, but some—have an ego problem. They think if they add on to a house, it’s got to show. Very often you see these warts sticking out of buildings that just don’t make much sense. I believe that architecture should respect and pay homage to what’s been done before.

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