The Art Handler: SOM’s Roger Duffy, With the Help of His Artist Friends, Thinks Outside the Old Glass Box

Mr. Duffy’s Greenwich Academy, designed with James Turrell. (SOM)

In seeking to expand his palette beyond the typical boundaries of architecture, Mr. Duffy has often collaborated with the minimalist artists he has gotten to know—even using commissions as an excuse to get closer to his idols. His first realized project as a principal was a lobby renovation at 350 Madison Avenue, completed in 2002. He tried to convince the late artist Fred Sandback, who drew in space using lengths of colored yarn, to work with him. Ultimately, Sandback, who died in 2003, turned the project down.

Not all artists feared being involved in commercial work, but not all of Mr. Duffy’s projects were so commercial, either. Next came a long-running partnership with James Turrell, famous for his sky-spaces, on a trio of private schools. The first, only now being built, was in Kuwait. Then came a new upper school for Greenwich Academy in Greenwich, Conn., completed in 2004. The pair created a long glass structure, with a greenroof on top, set into the hillside of the bucolic campus. Mr. Turrell crafted a dramatic entrance of prismatic lights.

Three years after that was an even more ambitious project: a new science building for the Deerfield Academy, in Deerfield, Mass. Mr. Duffy sought out astronomers, geologists and other scientists to join Mr. Turrell, the artist Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle and Dia’s former director Michael Govan in helping him conceive the design. What they came up with was a series of curving, curling brick walls. Inside, different installations track the movement of the sun and the strata of the earth beneath the school.

These days, Mr. Duffy is finishing a collaboration with conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner for an art and design-focused high school on East 57th Street that is set to open in the fall. Another one is being planned in Elizabeth, N.J., and he is working with a number of artists on a new building for the New School at the corner of 14th Street and Fifth Avenue.

“What good is just sticking a picture on the wall at the end?” Mr. Duffy said of his intense commitment to artistic collaboration.

He has designed his share of conventional projects, among them a cafeteria for Condé Nast (no, not that Condé cafeteria, but another at 750 Third Avenue for the Fairchild division), the Skyscraper Museum in a Battery Park City storefront and the Toren condo tower in Downtown Brooklyn. Still, all involve unusual collaborations, if not with artists. A fashion designer is helping with a new airport terminal in Mumbai.

It was through his work with the Dia artists that Mr. Duffy first got involved with the foundation. Michael Govan knew him from the shows he frequented, but it was after some difficulties in finishing the foundation’s building in Beacon, in 2003, that one of the artists suggested SOM, and specifically Mr. Duffy, could help. Another friendship was born.

Mr. Vergne recalled interviewing upwards of a hundred architects for the job, but in conversations, people kept telling him to seek out Mr. Duffy. “When I met Roger, he took me completely off guard,” Mr. Vergne said. “He gave me none of the answers I was used to from architects.”

The artists are equally excited. “In the words of a friend of mine, when they heard about Roger getting the job, they said, ‘Thank god they didn’t pick a starchitect,” Mr. Whitman said. “I call them ego-architects. All they do is get in the way. But not Roger. All he cares about is the art.”

Slideshow: A Dozen Duffy Designs >> | @MC_NYC

The Art Handler: SOM’s Roger Duffy, With the Help of His Artist Friends, Thinks Outside the Old Glass Box