One time Jeff and I were talking about the different kinds of people you meet in architecture school or firms. There are the hard-working, serious, responsible types. There are the people with big ideas but not quite the skills to realize them. There are the problem-solvers who excel at the rational aspects of design, but have a hard time with the more intuitive or compositional aspects. And then there are the people who just throw something down on paper, and it always looks good. Jeff smiled sheepishly and said, Yeah, I was one of them. He was absolutely right. Our class in grad school was half people who had four-year undergrad degrees in architecture, and half people who had never designed a building before. Jeff had gone to the University Of Florida, gotten a very good education there, and everything he did was beautiful. I was in awe of people like him, and if he hadn’t been such a nice guy, I would have really hated him for it.
Most of my close friends in school, such as Ray and Kerry, were more like me – northeasterners with liberal arts degrees who were feeling their way into this design thing. Not only was Jeff one of those really different architecture undergrad types, but he was from southern Florida, a completely alien world. I was equally exotic to him; he recently told me that I was the first person he’d ever known who regularly swore as part of normal conversation. (Jeff had never lived in New York before, obviously.) But despite these differences, we became good friends quickly. Not only was Jeff innately talented, but he was also very smart, inquisitive, gregarious, a very good guy, and a lot of fun. Architecture school is full of people who seem to be miserable most of the time – they’re sleep-deprived, overworked, insecure, dissatisfied with their work or angry that no one recognizes their genius. In the midst of this general angst, Jeff was always cheerful and kidding around. He had a way of getting you to stop taking it all (and yourself) too seriously. It would have been a lot harder getting through school without his presence.
After graduation, Jeff and I both worked in New York at Steven Winter Associates. We shared an office and spent a huge amount of time together for two years. We were mostly working on building systems and technology and research projects at this point, but we did get to do a little design together. My favorite collaboration was when we designed a 15,000 square foot house on an island in the Nile in Cairo. Being of the Postmodern generation, we went to town with historical allusions – domes, aches, courtyards, etc. There was a squash court and an outdoor pool, carefully screened from eyes going by on boats. It never came close to getting built, but we had a lot of fun.
After a couple of years Jeff felt the pull of family and the good life in Florida and so he returned. I visited him once in the lat 80s, after he had been working for a firm down there for a while, and was just starting out on his own. He showed me a house he had designed for his parents and which his brother had built. It was really good – simple, appropriate, well-scaled, with beautiful rooms. He talked about how hard it was to get work, and I said, but surely if you show people this house they’d want to hire you? Jeff said, yes, they like his parents’ house, but then they want to know if he could do something like that for them, but more ostentatious.
I moved to Oregon and we lost touch. I tried to Google him, but there are a lot of Jeff Thompsons out there. Finally I found him through Google Image, standing in a group photo of staff working for Broward County. We talked on the phone and caught up, and the next year when we were down in Florida at Christmas with my folks, we went over to Ft. Lauderdale to see him.
Jeff, like so many other excellent architects, had problems keeping his firm afloat with the inevitable oscillations in the boom-and-bust economy. HIs ex-wife lived up north with their two children, and he had responsibilities. So he moved into the public sector, working in capital projects for Broward County, getting a regular paycheck and benefits, and keeping more regular hours. He has happily stayed on there, and is now the Broward County architect, acting as the client and overseeing projects. A couple of years ago he took us to see a new children’s museum they had built, which was great. I’ve always thought that good clients had as much to do with good buildings as did architects, and this bore that out. It’s really worthwhile running complex processes so that good buildings can actually happen.
The other thing that happened with Jeff’s firm was that at one point he hired a charming interior designer, they fell in love and got married. Jill stayed on in practice, and also taught in and ran an interior design program in Miami. But after many years of those same business cycle swings, plus the completely insecure, badly-renumerated and often miserable life of a non-tenure-track faculty member, Jill went over to the public sector too. She works for the county parks department as their park planner and designer, and is loving what she does.
Jeff and Jill had a daughter about 20 years ago – Hannah is now a college student living at home with them in Ft. Lauderdale. Greta and Hannah have now met a few times over the years and have always had fun hanging out. The added attraction on our visit this year was Jeff’s daughter Jenn, who finished college up north and has been living with them in Florida since, working at various jobs and becoming a broker. Greta and Hannah and Jenn discovered many common interests (sci-fi, superhero comic books, etc.) and they have been put on Greta’s ever-growing list of the sisterhood of cool nerdy girls she’s met on this trip.
The first night we arrived, Jeff had acquired a big block of seats for the 3-D opening of the new Star Wars movie, which was perhaps the high point of the month for Greta. Linda had joined us for Christmas, so we all cruised around looking at stuff for a couple of days – beach towns, Miami, the new Perez museum. It’s quite amazing having two architects and two interior designers get together – the ideas are flying and the conversation never lags. The only problem is that all the kid are bored to tears by it, but at least this time they had their own conversation going on; so as always with seeing the Thompsons, we all had a great time.