Design that endures

by James Leach

"The education of a client is one of the most satisfying aspects of my work," says Peter Zimmerman '78, whose architecture is winning notices in Philadelphia and beyond.

Picked recently by the Philadelphia Business Journal as one of its "40 under 40" young business leaders, Zimmerman has established his Main Line firm as one of the top residential design practices in the region. He traces his success to his appreciation for the many influences that affect his profession -- an appreciation that he says began as an undergraduate studying the liberal arts.

"Architecture is a reflection of society," says Zimmerman. "A broad-brush understanding of culture, religion, history, literature -- a liberal arts education -- is critical for good design."

He described a meeting with a client: "We were talking about an element that first appeared in the work of the Italian Renaissance architect Palladio. Then it was revisited in European architecture and eventually made its way to the colonies, where it was found in Jefferson's architecture." Two hours after the meeting the client called back to ask for some readings that would take the idea further.

"That's what you want in a client," Zimmerman says, "someone who's willing to understand how the traditions of architecture pull forward the projects of today."

When he was a young man considering a career Zimmerman says he asked several architects what it would take to succeed in their profession. To a person, he recalls, they advised him that a general education was invaluable. So he came to Colgate. On campus for two and a half years his studies focused on the history of architecture. In the studio he concentrated on sculpture.

For professional training in the technical skills of architecture he spent a year at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies in New York City. When he returned to Colgate for his final semester he continued to focus on architecture, primarily through a series of independent studies.

Architecture also became an interest outside of class when the college announced plans to raze Old Bio (now Hascall Hall). With a handful of other students and faculty member Brooks Stoddard, Zimmerman sat in at the president's office to lobby for reconsideration. Their efforts prevailed and today the building is listed on the National Register of Historic places.

Given his history with Old Bio, it is no surprise that the building is Zimmerman's campus favorite. "It draws from H.H. Richardson and is a strong interpretation of traditional architecture in the United States," he says. "And look what it does for the campus plan, creating two intimate quads instead of one long space that would have lost its human scale."

Zimmerman spent the year after his graduation from Colgate working with an architectural firm in Baltimore, then enrolled at Harvard, earning a Master of Architecture. He passed his licensing exams in the shortest time possible, and in 1982 with another architect founded Solutions, Inc. in Berwyn, just outside Philadelphia. Three years ago he purchased the firm and today Peter Zimmerman Architects is a thriving 13-person practice.

"Architecture is such a personal endeavor," he said, "particularly residential architecture, that I felt I needed to have my name associated with it. The anonymous corporate image is fine in commercial and institutional architecture, but residential clients hire individuals."

In a practice the size of his, says Zimmerman, the principal can manage both the design and business sides. "The business aspect is what turns my eight-hour days into 12-hour days," he admits. "But design is my background and my love, so I oversee all the design in the office."

Zimmerman's associates, like his business, like Zimmerman himself, are young. The house on Old Lancaster Road where they create their designs is full of life and energy and playful inventions, but it is also clearly a place for serious work.

"I believe that we constantly learn," says Zimmerman. "We are always involved in the design process. I like working with people who are inquisitive. Who have an appreciation for the history and traditions of architecture."

Good architecture, he says, "is independent of style. It has much more to do with proportion and scale and texture."

He specializes in residential architecture because it allows a greater degree of flexibility. And he strives to reward his clients with buildings that endure. "The experience of one of our buildings should be as much of a delight 10 to 15 years after a client has lived in it as it is the first day they walk in," he says. "They should be able to continue to discover and understand more about the principles of design through their entire experience with the building.

"It's a complex story that we try to weave, not a one-liner where it's all out in front of you. Architecture is a discovery process and in that process is the continuing enrichment of the user's involvement with their built environment."

That philosophy has earned Zimmerman growing recognition by organizations and publications such as the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Custom Home magazine, Better Homes and Gardens, and the Main Line Builders Association. When The Philadelphia Business Journal named him among its "40 under 40" leaders, it recognized not only his business success, but his contributions to the community as well.

"I think you have to give back to the community," he says of his volunteer activities, which have spanned interests from historic preservation and land conservation to watershed management and preservation of wildlife habitats. He also provides pro bono consulting for such non-profit organizations as Camphill Soltane, a residential community for the mentally impaired.

Peter Zimmerman approaches life the way he approaches architecture: with a deep appreciation for a design that endures.