An Interview: Peter Coombe MArch ’88

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1. Tell us about your background and early education?

I was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio. I left Cincinnati in 1979 to attend college, and I spent the summer following my freshman year back in Cincinnati, but have not spent much time there since. It is, though, a remarkable place with a number of parks designed by Frederick Law Olmsted that overlook the Ohio River.

When I arrived at Yale for college, I had every expectation to study history. A roommate recommended that I take one of Professor Vincent Scully’s art history classes, and that year he only offered his history of modern architecture. That class, and Alexander Purves’ introduction to architecture, changed my mind, and I decided to study architecture instead.

2. What can you tell us about your early journey that got you to where you are today?

Starting at the age of ten or so I would spend Saturday mornings helping an older family friend, Walter Farmer, with his garden. Time in the garden was for work, of course, but also for conversation about topics that reached far beyond his garden fence. I gave up gardening for Little League, but he remained a mentor to me. Years later I learned that as a captain in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during World War II, he had been the principal author of the Wiesbaden manifesto, which argued for the preservation of national art treasures. When he heard that I had elected to study architecture, he gave me a copy of Sigfried Giedon’s Space, Time and Architecture. He noted in an inscription that his copy, the first edition, had changed his life, and he hoped that it would do the same for me. After I had been accepted to the GSD, he told me that he had earned an undergraduate architecture degree and he, too, had applied to the GSD and had been accepted, but at that time could not pay the tuition – the Great Depression made it impossible for him to continue his training as an architect. His example has always been for me the proof of the good that mentors do – and the importance of financial aid.

3. What is the most significant thing you learned while at the GSD?

Classmates were, and continue to be, my most constructive and influential critics and teachers.

4. What is your favorite memory of the GSD? 

Not surprisingly, it is rather difficult to choose a favorite. One that comes to mind is impromptu communal dinners where some of the junior faculty would drop by, often Wilfried Wang. Another is the privilege to have been Carol Burns’ teaching assistant. Editing an edition of the now sadly defunct Harvard Architecture Review. The quasi-metaphysical drawing instructions of Bahram Shirdel.

5. Looking back, what experiences would you recommend GSD students seek out today? What experiences at the GSD (or beyond the walls of Gund Hall) influenced your path?

Take full advantage of the spectrum that the GSD and Harvard offer. Do not limit your education just to what is offered within your degree program. Ignore the practical.

6. Tell us about Sage and Coombe Architects.

The focus of our practice has evolved to be public work. We may be best known for our reconstruction of the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City, a project that lasted nearly 20 years and consisted of three phases of design and construction. During that time, we were selected for Mayor Bloomberg’s design excellence program multiple times by two New York City agencies. The opportunity led us to develop a practice that provides services almost exclusively to non-profit institutions and public agencies. One of our favorite clients is the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, for whom we have designed one of their largest buildings—the Ocean Breeze Athletic Complex—and a number of their smallest. Along the way we developed the standard for the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation restroom building. In a much smaller city, but a New York neighbor, Newark, this past summer we completed the first phase of a small but transformative park in the center of the downtown district. Taewook Cha MLA ’98, principal of Supermass Studio, was our collaborator. Currently we are working with Hargreaves Jones on a park in the center of Wilmington, North Carolina. We like these projects because of their positive effect on large, diverse, and typically underserved populations.

7. How have you approached change and growth in your career?

I have gone from drawing everything to drawing very little, which I think is the traditional arc of most careers as one takes on different responsibilities. It is also an acknowledgement that the tools of the profession have changed. Current students are exposed to software and hardware that only a few offices can afford. Experience was the great divide. It still is but cuts in different ways now.

8. We noticed (and share in) your love of pencils – personalized on your firm’s website! How did this idea come about and any idea on what will inspire the next iteration?

The idea of sending pencils as a holiday greeting came from Jennifer Sage AB ’78, the Sage of Sage and Coombe. It is a tradition that has lasted 25 years. Sending pencils as a gift is quaint and a bit silly—and that’s why we like it. We typically imprint the pencils with a phrase or other messaging that at the time seems topical. Some years the themes are ready-made—like in 2007, when we went with a James Bond theme: “Gold Pencil,” “Pencils are Forever,” and “Pencil Royale.” Some years the pencils are more like conceptual art: One of my favorite series is from 2011, when we sent out pencils labeled “Right Handed Pencil,” “Left Handed Pencil,” and “Two Handed Pencil.” Some years political statements are unavoidable. Our 2017 pencils were bright pink. We always send three. When we launched the office in 1994, there were three of us: Jennifer, Ross Wimer MArch ’88, and myself.

9. What occupies your time and thoughts when you are not working?

My wife, Betty Chen AB ’87, and I have two daughters. Both are enrolled at Yale and are remarkable young women. Miranda is studying, among other things, Arabic. Two years ago, she spent a year in Greece working with Syrian and Kurdish refugees and learned a bit of both languages as well as some Greek. Audrey, a gifted writer and chess player, just started and has some time before she must decide where to focus her energies. At the moment she is interested in film studies.

10. Where do you go to feel inspired?

I remember that Professor Jorge Silvetti’s mantra in the 1980s was that “forms come from forms,” which has certainly always been true. Visiting cities, landscapes, buildings, and in particular museums and galleries is always a source of inspiration. And I love to read—some of our less obvious strategies come from are from what we happened to have read. For example, after reading James Gleick’s The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, we proposed cladding a building in Morse code rendered in perforated aluminum. We have also experimented with brick bonds and lighting configurations that are binary codes.

My colleagues on the Alumni Council and in the Development and Alumni Relations office, along with the members of the GSD community, are certainly sources of inspiration. The Council is comprised of a diverse group of professionals. Some members graduated in the 1960s, others are recent graduates. They represent every academic program including the Loeb Fellowship and the Advanced Management Development Program. Without fail, each is a tireless and dedicated advocate for their profession, for the alumni community, and for the School.

11. Congratulations on becoming Chair of the GSD Alumni Council this year! What areas of focus have you defined for Alumni Council members in their role as ambassadors for the GSD?

As the Alumni Council Chair, it is my sincere honor to lead the Council with Vice Chair Cathy Deino Blake, FASLA, MLA ’77 for the next three years. We will continue the work of previous generations of the Council to maintain and build robust bonds with our exceptional alumni community, the current student body, and the School administration and faculty. We begin our work with the deep belief that our alumni are an invaluable resource for the School and the University. For all of us this is a very exciting and auspicious moment of change: This past July, Sarah M. Whiting began her tenure as the Dean of the GSD; and on behalf of the Council, we welcome Sarah back to Cambridge. We eagerly look forward to supporting her goals, promoting her vision for the School, and finding the role that the alumni community will play in that vision.

The Alumni Council has three core missions: The first is to represent the alumni community, the second is to support the student body, and the third is to present the GSD to the University community and out in the world. Our mission is not only to encourage alumni to return to the GSD both literally and metaphorically, but also to bring the GSD to our alumni community, wherever that may be. This year the Council turned 65, and even with our long history we are working to increase the Council’s visibility within the School and beyond by strengthening our partnerships with GSD communications, student services, and Student Forum. In concert with the Development and Alumni Relations office, our members are embarking on a regional approach, looking within their own communities for willing partners such as emeriti members of the Council, local Harvard Clubs, or Harvard Alumni Association Shared Interest Groups.

 12. How can the larger alumni community support this important work? What resources are available to them?

Before taking on the role of chair, I co-chaired the Student Alumni Exchange Committee (S/AX), first with John Shreve MAUD ’92 and more recently with Brenda Levin, FAIA, MArch ’76. Both are dedicated to the welfare of the students and look to make the GSD a more nurturing environment. Much of my outlook as Chair and what I hope we can achieve during the course of my term comes from what I learned from Brenda, John, and my time here as a student in the mid-1980s. S/AX surveyed the student body in 2017 and heard that the students are desperate for mentors. A mentorship program requires active partnership on both sides: mentors and mentees. We have found willing partners in student groups. Last spring, with the Harvard Urban Planning Organization and Womxn in Design, we helped launch two beta programs. With the support of Student Services and the Student Forum, we hope to extend mentorship efforts to other active student groups.

The alumni community can participate in this effort by developing robust profiles on the Harvard Alumni Directory. This University-wide resource allows students and fellow alumni to find those willing to serve in career networking roles and build their alumni connections. Profiles can be customized to include personal and professional-related information. This serves as a Harvard-wide verified network, sort of like a Harvard LinkedIn, where fellow alumni or students can contact you. There is more information here about how to develop a robust profile.

13. The Alumni Council serves as the representative body of the GSD alumni community. How do Alumni Council members model behavior to set an example for fellow alumnae and alumni?

Among the accomplishments of my predecessor, Allyson Mendenhall AB ’90, MLA ’99, during her term as Chair was to make equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging a priority of the Council. This past year the Council adopted a community values statement which serves as a code of ethics. We have participated in gender and sexual-based harassment prevention training and engaged in programs to understand bias, setting the standard for other alumni volunteers across the University.

We also expect that each Council member will participate fully in all of the Council’s initiatives. Our initiatives also include serving as mentors to students and young alumni, nominating others to serve on the Council, and contributing to the GSD Fund to support financial aid, along with hosting and attending events.

Each year, the Council creates opportunities for 300-400 alumni at about 15 events in cities around the world. We truly hope that all alumni will continue the mission of the Council to build community: Please participate in local events, host your own, offer to mentor a young professional or student, recommend the School to a promising student, nominate a colleague to serve on the Council, give to the annual fund, and claim your HarvardKey and create a Harvard Alumni Directory profile so that others can find you.

On that note: I’ve heard that if you are a graduate of Harvard Business School, you are free to call any other HBS graduate to ask for advice. Our goal is to make that the case for GSD alumni as well.

14. How does the Alumni Council look for new and more effective ways of building local GSD and Harvard communities within the U.S. and abroad?

As ambassadors, the task of the Council is a bit of a numbers game. There are roughly 50 of us representing a community of more than 13,000. To build vibrant communities, we have to find partners within our community who are willing to help with that work. One focus of the next few years is to identify areas and groups of alumni that have not had, or currently do not have, representation on the Council. Today’s GSD is not the GSD I knew as a student in the 1980s. Many more students are from overseas, and an increasing proportion of our alumni body is international. In the coming years, we will need to find a strategy for creating effective outreach to the areas that have not had strong alumni communities. This problem is not unique to the GSD. It is shared across the University. We recognize that what is effective in New York may not work in Dallas or in Seoul. Fortunately, in the many places that we find GSD alumni, there is often already some level of HAA infrastructure that we can leverage.

15. You serve as one of the GSD’s Appointed Directors to the Harvard Alumni Association (HAA) raising the School’s profile with the HAA, sharing its mission broadly to fellow alumni leaders across the University, and demonstrating the work of GSD alumni in the world. What value do you see for GSD alumni in engaging with the broader Harvard community?

We are also very lucky to have had C. Ron Ostberg MArch ’68 as our past representative on the HAA leading the effort to elevate the relevance of graduate school alumni from across Harvard. He is a tireless advocate for the GSD within the HAA community and is always looking for ways to increase our influence. Currently a number of GSD Alumni Council emeriti serve on the HAA: Collette Creppell AB ’82, MArch ’90, Allyson Mendenhall, Jennifer Luce, FAIA, MDes ’94, Jeffrey Murphy, FAIA, MArch ’86, and Ron Ostberg. They are among the 90 GSD alumni who serve as volunteer leaders on the HAA Board or with the various Harvard Clubs and Shared Interest Groups around the world.

In many respects, the GSD has been a leader in the University community. According to President Emerita Drew Faust, GSD stands for more than Graduate School of Design; it also means “Get Stuff Done.” During his tenure as Dean, Mohsen Mostafavi was instrumental in expanding the GSD’s relevance across the University. I have no doubt that Dean Whiting will do the same.