Norman Pfeiffer, bicoastal architect of civic spaces, dies at 82
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Norman Pfeiffer, bicoastal architect of civic spaces, dies at 82
His global portfolio was dominated by projects that helped revitalize downtown Los Angeles and restore landmarks in New York.

by Sam Roberts

NEW YORK, NY.- Norman Pfeiffer, a bicoastal architect who for more than a half-century restored, re-imagined and created civic spaces that enhanced New York City landmarks and helped revitalize downtown Los Angeles, died Aug. 23 at his home in Pacific Palisades, California. He was 82.

The cause was congestive heart failure, his wife, Patricia Zohn, said.

In Los Angeles, Pfeiffer, a founding partner of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates, was instrumental in designing the renovation and expansion of the Los Angeles Central Library, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Colburn School of Performing Arts & Music Conservatory, and the Griffith Observatory.

In New York, he drafted plans for the restoration of Radio City Music Hall, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Cooper Hewitt museum and the New Amsterdam Theater, as well as new homes for the Dance Theater of Harlem and the Brooklyn Children’s Museum.

His portfolio included the master plan for the campus of Soka University of America and 14 of its first 18 buildings — a dream commission that began with a blank slate of “a brown, bare piece of earth, 103 acres of nothing” in Aliso Viejo, California, he told The New York Times in 2001.

Financed by Soka Gakkai International, a Japanese sect that is one of the world’s largest lay Buddhist organizations, the campus was designed to mirror the university’s humanistic, egalitarian mission, with everyone from the president to a janitor allotted an office of the same size.

Pfeiffer oversaw projects ranging from the American University library in Cairo, which offered his firm’s modern version of Egyptian architecture, to the glass, and thus transparent, Information Services Building at the University of Otago in New Zealand.

Pfeiffer — who was distinguished from most of his colleagues by the fact that he had firsthand experience with construction work as a boy, and also by his mild, unflashy demeanor — began his career inauspiciously. After earning a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation in 1965, he rummaged through the Manhattan Yellow Pages for the names of architects.

He showed up unannounced at the offices of Hugh Hardy and Malcolm Holzman and was hired.

He later became the their partner. Their firm dissolved in 2004, when he formed Pfeiffer Associates, with offices in Los Angeles and New York. He retired in 2020.

Pfeiffer had operated from Los Angeles since 1986, having moved there to supervise the completion of the Robert O. Anderson Building, his glass-brick-faced addition to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. (Its chief patron was an oil industry titan.) Art critic William Wilson wrote in the Los Angeles Times that the building’s “slender green glazed piers soar four stories to a ceiling of saw-toothed, factory-style translucent skylights.”

Wilson called the design a tribute to “the revivalism and hybridization of postmodernism.”

But Paul Goldberger, who was then The New York Times’ architecture critic, pronounced the addition overwhelming, writing that it “swallows the old buildings almost whole, leaving them to stick out from the sides like a chunk of unbitten meat.”

Critics’ ambivalence was for all practical purposes resolved in 2020, when the building was demolished for construction of the museum’s latest incarnation, the David Geffen Galleries.

Pfeiffer’s addition to the central library in Los Angeles exemplified the city’s cosmopolitan aspirations at both ends of the 20th century.

The original structure was designed in the 1920s, when Los Angeles officials enlisted New York architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue to validate the city’s distinct urbanity with a landmark building on a prominent site downtown.

Instead of razing the outdated building, the city commissioned Pfeiffer, who had been on the front lines helping the Fire Department extinguish a devastating blaze there in 1986.

“Pfeiffer’s design centered on an eight-story atrium,” Susan Orlean wrote in “The Library Book,” her 2018 ode to the Los Angeles library. “The experience of passing through both buildings would be like walking through an eccentric playhouse and then tumbling over a waterfall.”

Goldberger wrote in the Times that Pfeiffer’s adobe-colored stucco and green terra cotta addition was “slightly whimsical, slightly institutional, its style a kind of decorated industrial modernism that picks up on the Art Moderne leanings of the Goodhue building.”

“In a city of private realms,” he added, “this project celebrates what Los Angeles needs most of all: the public realm.”

Norman Henry Pfeiffer was born Nov. 13, 1940, in Seattle to Sylvia (Medby) Pfeiffer, whose father was a master carpenter from Norway, and Henry Pfeiffer, an electrician and contractor. Norman was said to have acquired his appreciation for building from his father and his maternal grandfather, who built the family’s homes.

He graduated with a bachelor of architecture degree from the University of Washington in 1964. While there, he played shortstop and second base for the semiprofessional collegiate Seattle Cheney Studs, toting his drafting board on the team bus to complete his homework. He then attended Columbia on a scholarship.

In 1978, Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates was awarded the medal of honor by the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects. In 1981, Pfeiffer was elected to the institute’s College of Fellows. He was its youngest member at the time.

In addition to Zohn, a journalist, whom he married in 1980, Pfeiffer is survived by two children, Alexander and Medby Pfeiffer, from his marriage to Jeanne Polacek Blacklow, which ended in divorce; two children from his marriage to Zohn, Nicholas and Patrick Pfeiffer; a brother, Paul Pfeiffer; and four grandchildren.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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