The Life of a Craftsman: Raymond Brochstein, FAIA
Houston's fearless leader, Raymond Brochstein, FAIA, demonstrates and demands excellence. Rice University professor Nonya Grenader, FAIA, profiles the craftsman, innovator, builder, philanthropist, and businessman who has made so many highly valued contributions to the city.
When Raymond Brochstein, FAIA, shows the handmade wooden tools that his father used, it is clear that he comes from a line of formidable craftsmen. The tools transcend the simple premise of form and function; they are artifacts that exemplify the highest tradition of making. Brochstein’s long and distinguished career has been shaped by his father, who exposed him to the intricacies of the trade, and by his own continuing commitment to educate others about how to turn design concepts into meticulously refined objects and architectural elements made of wood. Along the way, Brochstein, with his wife, Susan, has been a catalyst and generous donor for numerous projects that have enhanced the architectural profile and landscape of Houston.
Brochstein’s father, Isaac, immigrated to Galveston in 1912 at the age of 15. When the young man stepped off the boat, he was ten dollars in debt yet confident in the cabinetmaking skills he had learned from his own father. After years of working in Houston as a cabinetmaker, draftsman, designer, builder, and salesman, Isaac formed his own company, Brochsteins Inc., in 1935. Four years later, he spent all his savings, along with borrowed funds, on 36 rail-served acres (at $150 per acre) with frontage on South Main Street. He worked with the architect Lenard Gabert on a design that was completed in 1940 — a modern factory whose white facade was anchored by a bold pylon bearing the distinctive logo. Despite lingering effects of the Great Depression, Isaac developed a successful and admired business designing and fabricating custom interiors.
When Brochstein was 15, Isaac summoned him to work in the family business over the summer. The long, hot days began at 7 a.m., and the tasks were challenging for the Lamar High School student. “A simple mortise lock set would take four hours,” commented Brochstein. “It had to be done right.” Under the direction of master woodworkers in the shop, Brochstein hand-sanded miles of mahogany crown molding for the Shamrock Hotel — learning to meticulously sponge down the wood to raise the grain, making it easier to catch all the imperfections. His father insisted that he learn all the facets of the business.
Brochstein enrolled at Rice University (then Rice Institute) in 1951 and had Anderson Todd, FAIA, as a professor over multiple semesters. “Todd insisted that every design decision mattered; he was a taskmaster like my father,” said Brochstein. “Both were demanding but fair, and everything I have become, I owe to the two of them.” In later years, when Todd and Brochstein collaborated on the design of a table, the earlier studio lessons still applied: They considered multiple options for connecting vertical stainless steel legs to horizontal supports (settling on a reveal). They questioned the thickness of the tabletop, debating the difference 1/16 of an inch would make. Again, everything mattered. Todd and Brochstein remain friends, and Todd praises Brochstein’s principles and design talent: “Raymond always fulfills all obligations, and he has an unparalleled eye for proportions and materials as a means of architectural expression.”
At Rice, Brochstein had a memorable visit with Frank Lloyd Wright following a lecture. He remembers Wright as the most charismatic architect he ever met, and it made a big impact when Wright advised: “Get your hands in the mud, and learn about the nature of materials.” The message resonated with Brochstein’s craftsman roots, and though he became an exemplary architect whose work would include the design of his own award-winning house (with Anderson Todd and William Cannady, FAIA), he never strayed from his woodworking past. He took his family’s business to new heights, employing the problem-solving skills he had learned as an architect to assist clients in refining and producing drawings and prototypes.
Brochstein has worked with many esteemed architects, forging design relationships that have resulted in magnificent interiors in Houston and far beyond Texas. During the design of the J. Paul Getty Center, by Richard Meier & Partners (completed in 1997), Meier called Brochstein to discuss the search for a white oak with an extremely tight, vertical grain that could receive a particular grey stain. With a sharp understanding of the architect’s intent, and drawing on his extensive
contacts all over the world, Brochstein located the perfect wood in Southern Germany.
His advice and expertise result in a design process that is truly collaborative. When Brochstein was elevated to the College of Fellows in 1996, William O. Neuhaus, FAIA, stated: “Raymond is considered a part of the architectural team by the designers with whom he works. His interface with the traditional practice of architecture is enhanced by architectural training and ideals.”
Working with firms such as Gwathmey Siegel, Gensler, and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), Brochstein brought a breadth of talents to his projects. Craig W. Hartman, FAIA, a partner at SOM, observed: “Raymond Brochstein is an American design institution. He is a superb craftsman, brilliant innovator, builder, philanthropist, and businessman with a keen and well-informed eye for architecture. He is always generous with his time and advice, which is widely sought by everyone from architects and students to university presidents. Most of all, he is beloved for his warmth, kindness, and curmudgeonly good humor.”
Brochstein received the Gold Medal from the Rice Alumni Association in 2011 and was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award from AIA Houston in 2012. He served on the Rice Board of Trustees from 1998 to 2002 and is currently chairman of the Campus Art Committee. He also serves on the School of Architecture’s William Ward Watkin Council.
In addition to his considerable design contributions, Brochstein has volunteered his time and resources to numerous efforts in the Houston area. From initiatives in education to numerous philanthropic gestures — from Hermann Park to Buffalo Bayou — Brochstein’s enormous contributions matter a great deal to Houston residents and many others.
One such contribution, the Brochstein Pavilion, donated to Rice by Raymond and Susan and designed by Thomas Phifer and Partners, received the national AIA Institute Honor Award for Architecture in 2010. The exquisite pavilion is a vibrant gathering place on campus; jurors admired it for “its beautiful proportions, lightness, and immaculate detailing.” They also described the pavilion as elegant and modern amidst traditional buildings and recognized the way in which the structure redefined the campus. Thomas Phifer observed: “Raymond so loves Rice and the promise of change. His voice and unwavering support for a new spirit of contemporary architecture on the Rice campus has transformed this extraordinary historic campus and will define, in so many critical ways, a new progressive institutional ethos.” On a more personal note, Phifer added: “But it is his warmth, authentic spirit, courage, and loyalty that is so memorable. With great hope, he looks forward.”
While the classic facade of Brochsteins Inc. is relatively unchanged since 1940, inside, innovation is evident in every area. A digital studio generates shop drawings, and data is sent to state-of-the-art machines that cut, sand, and finish with precision and efficiency. Even though the factory was built with ample clerestory lighting and designed for effective ventilation, contemporary emission-reduction systems have been introduced. Employees are viewed as stakeholders, and cross-training — the same approach Isaac Brochstein used with his son — is emphasized. An employee’s average tenure is 14 years.
Recently, Brochstein led a group of Rice architecture students on a tour of the facility. His daughter Deborah, now CEO, toured with them. The students eagerly asked questions, often focusing on changes in the fabrication process, and Brochstein’s answers were patient and insightful. He smiled when remembering his 1956 Rice thesis, titled “Change is the Essence of Man,” noting that it is human nature to keep seeking change even when honoring the past. Through design, education, and contribution to community, Raymond Brochstein has quietly moved forward, demanding and demonstrating excellence.
Nonya Grenader, FAIA, is a Houston-based architect and professor at Rice University.
Published in the March/April 2014 issue of Texas Architect.