Jaquelin Robertson is an architect and urban planner at Cooper, Robertson & Partners, a firm in New York City that he co-founded in 1988. He was born and raised in Richmond, Virginia, the youngest of three children. A short, but influential period in his life occurred at age 11 when his family lived in China for a year and a half. At the start of his architectural career, he was one of the founders of the New York City Urban Design Group, the first Director of the Office of Midtown Planning and Development and a City Planning Commissioner under Mayor John Lindsay. In his thirties, he spent three years in Iran directing the planning and design of Tehran’s new capitol center. From 1980 to 1988, he served as the dean of the University of Virginia School of Architecture. His awards include the Thomas Jefferson Medal in Architecture in 1998, the Seaside Prize for his contribution to American Urbanism and the 2007 Driehaus Prize for work in the field of traditional, classical and sustainable architecture.
What were your parent’s professions?
My mother didn’t have a profession. She ran a number of houses that we had. My father was a diplomat and an investment banker. He ran Lend-Lease in Australia during the Second World War and was Franklin Roosevelt’s economic advisor to China who tried to negotiate a coalition government in China after the war and served later as the Assistant Secretary of State for the Far East for President Eisenhower.
What were your parents’ philosophy in raising children?
I wouldn’t say it was a philosophy. They treated children, who had the good fortune to be born into comfortable homes, as children were generally treated at that time. You told the truth. You had very good manners. You listened to older people. You were not selfish. You learned how to do sports–riding, tennis, fishing and shooting–and were expected to excel at school, to do well.
Is there any advice or wisdom you got from your parents that you still carry with you today?
Can you name one that still resonates with you?
When I was ten years old, my father told me to never be confused by someone’s title, how much money they have, or where they live. He said there are princes who are paupers and there are paupers who are princes. That is, you will find people of the highest quality at every level of society and every level of income group. Never be confused by title, rank, money. Always judge them on their own merits.
I knew quite early that my father was deeply brilliant, kind and knowing. My mother exposed me to traveling, reading, music; seeing things and learning about the world. My father was filled with sound advice. He said to remember “everyone gets older, but not everyone grows up.” And again it’s only when you stop being “the hero of your own life” that you are free and can do something useful.
Before you went to China, did your family travel a lot?
We lived in two houses in Virginia–Richmond in the wintertime and Orange County in the summer. As children, we’d go back and forth. In 1939, we were taken to New York to see the World’s Fair. It was wondrous. After I came back from China, I was 13 years old and I went “north” to school. I also started traveling in Europe three or four summers for different reasons and saw different things. These foreign exposures were very important. My exposure to China and Europe changed my entire life.
In what way?
China is the oldest culture in the history of the world. At twelve, I had never flown half way around the world and I knew nothing about China until I got there. I learned bad Chinese. I took up painting. I was overwhelmed by the China experience. It made me want to see the rest of the world. It made me understand totally different views that people of different countries and cultures have.
What part of China were you in?
We were living in Peking. (At that time, the capital was in Nanking.) My father had been asked to try to negotiate a truce between the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communists. Of course, it didn’t happen. At that time I met George Marshall, Douglas MacArthur, every major American politician and minister, and most of the leaders–Zhou EnLai, Mao Zedong, Yeh Chin Ming, Chiang Kaishek. I saw all of those people as a young boy which was very exciting. I also saw countries going to war and the collapse of what was the old China. The great thing is I saw the city of Peking before it was destroyed. It was one of the greatest cities in the world. And the Chinese, who are all very proud, will never forgive themselves for destroying it themselves. Huge mistake.
And I was very interested in architecture. Having grown up in Virginia, you saw very beautiful buildings and gardens. Going to China, you also saw very beautiful architecture. And they were quite different. Everything–settings, food, smells, colors–was different and therefore educational. Geography is the most important of all the disciplines. It underlies everything. You only understand geography when you fly around the world and see what’s different in where things are and why the world is the way it is.
Let’s go back to what you were like as a child. How would you describe yourself?
I was pretty happy. I was lucky. Through no fault of my own, I was born into comfortable circumstances. I learned how to ride and to shoot. To be with animals. I love animals, dogs, cats, horses. My parents had interesting friends and I learned a lot from older people. I was interested in older people when I was a child. I had friends. I did well in school. I was very lucky.
Did you read a lot while growing up?
Yes. A lot. My mother read a lot to her children. She would read almost every day in the summertime to all of us. She read not just children’s classics, but serious books as well. I hadn’t realized what that meant, the sound of the words and the stories. After puberty I started reading everything.
What were some of the adult books she read?
Moby Dick. I’ve read Moby Dick myself three times. It was read to me when I was probably not more than six years old. I thought it was a story of a whale, but of course it was much more. A number of Joseph Conrad’s books (Victory), Charles Dickens (A Tale of Two Cities. David Cooperfield), J.R.R. Tolkien (The Hobbit), James Fenimore Cooper (The Deerslayer, Last of the Mohicans). Lots of other people.
Of course, the best children’s books were The Wind in the Willows and Alice in Wonderland. They were really adult books hiding as children’s books. They were written by brilliant people. All the fables. Aesop’s Fables. All those are instructions for life.
And I begun to like music a lot. I could not play an instrument, but I realized quite early on that music was good stuff. I sang a lot both in church and school.
What do you think was the most challenging aspect of your childhood?
I didn’t have any serious challenges. That was probably the weakness of it. I suspect I wanted to live up to my parents’ expectations.
Why do you say it’s a weakness?
Challenges–real setbacks–are what make you grow. My childhood was almost too perfect, too protected.
And your adolescence?
That’s different. Then you think you’re grown up. (Laughs) I travelled a lot; seeing the Far East and Europe. Flying. My father had been a fighter pilot in the First World War, so he took his children when we were very young up in open cockpit planes. He got us used to flying. I loved it. You saw the world from the air for the first time. This in turn gave me a greater understanding of the ecology, the history, and the politics of the planet.
Between thirteen and when you go to college–those four, five years–are when you are learning everything. I was at a very good school in both Richmond and New England. You had good teachers and you got very interested in girls. (Laughs) That was nice.
Did you feel any pressure to get the highest marks in school?
No. I was always near the top, but I was never the top person in my class. What I learned is that there are people who are smarter than you are. I thought I was pretty smart. I worked pretty hard, but there was always someone smarter.
What I learned was a lot about people’s character. In childhood, you don’t really examine character, but between ages 13 and 19 you probably learn more than any other time in your life and it’s about everything. In retrospect, it was a golden time. You realized that serious things go on in the world and you begin to understand those things.
What were your interests during that time?
Because of having lived in China and my Father having been in the Foreign Service as a diplomat, I was very interested in what was going on in the world–government, geopolitics, current events.
I was also always interested in the countryside: cows, horses, dogs, orchards, trees, birds. I spent summers immersed in the countryside. The natural world has as much or more to teach you than the man-made world. The town and country each taught you different things. There was little I wasn’t interested in.
I had been given a very good liberal arts education; but not much in terms of science. I regret that. You took physics, but you really didn’t get it and physics was the easiest. Science was the big missing thing. Geology was interesting, because it was about how the earth was made. I liked geology, because the professor who taught it at Yale drew a lot. I had begun to draw from the time I was three years old. I was a cartoonist at Yale. I loved drawing and people who drew well; both serious artists and those who drew comic strips.
I realized then and believe now that geography is the underlying discipline of everything. If you don’t know it, you know nothing. Climate, what grows, who’s where, where things happen, where we come from. Everything. As you know now, it’s not a requirement in the American high schools which is probably why we seem at times stupid. You can’t be dumb and survive. The gods don’t allow you to be that dumb to not know. You really have to be involved between ages 12 and 18 trying to learn how things work. You cannot have the luxury of not being informed. You have people in the United States who think the Battle of Gettysburg was in the American Revolution. They know nothing about their own history. They know almost nothing about geography. It’s not that they’re not intelligent They are some as smart as hell. They just have had not a day of education. That’s a disadvantage that will ruin this country as fast as anything else.
Who besides your parents were a big influence in your life?
A number of their friends who were doctors, lawyers, people who were in the military or the Foreign Service. I was always interested in older people. And you have teachers as you go through school and some teachers (more than you know) who change your life. I could sit down and write about five or six people who were teachers of mine of different ages who changed my life.
Are there any that are more special than others?
There are probably half a dozen. There was one who taught music and one who taught drawing at St. Marks prep school in New England. At Yale, there was Vincent Scully who was the great historian of architecture and probably the greatest lecturer at Yale in the last fifty years. A legendary figure. Still alive. And Josef Albers, the Bauhaus painter and color theorist who came over from Europe and taught at Yale. A freehand drawing course perhaps was the single greatest educational experience in my life. He was a genius. I took the course, because I liked to draw. What I learned from him was “how to see,” That’s a big difference. He educated my eyes and my hand.
At Oxford, I got Gilbert Ryle, who was the linguistic philosopher at the time, Roy Harrod, arguably one of the most knowledgeable economists, and A.J.P. Taylor who was the crankiest and most naughty of the English historians. I had them all in my first year and it was so shocking. It was so goddamn good. It was like going to the movies everyday. Real entertainment. as education.
Were you there for a year or two?
Two. Before I went to Oxford I was planning to go into the Foreign Service, or international business. My last year at Yale I decided to become an architect, but when I got the Rhodes you couldn’t study architecture at Oxford. So I took Modern Greats (PPE) which was something I knew about and enjoyed.
The best things were the teachers and living in Oxford. The city at that time and the people were extraordinarily grand. I made a lot of English friends. Since I ended up living and working in England and around the world, that international network of friends was important. The politics the year I went there was the Suez Canal and the year after was the Hungarian Revolution, so things were bopping.
What tripped it for you to go into architecture?
While an undergraduate, I was exposed to Vincent Scully, Josef Albers and Philip Johnson who became mentors. I would much of spend my free time in the architecture school. I kept looking at things being done there. Lou Kahn was teaching at the time, and I said to myself, “Hell, I can do this. This is easy and interesting.” But for some reason I had a kind of puritanical view that anything that was easy or came naturally was not serious. Initially, I continued to think that I would wrestle with the world of politics and the Foreign Service. By the time I got to be a senior I said, “Wait a second, Robertson. You know architecture. You already know more about it than some of the people teaching it. Why would you not become an architect?” So I said, ”Yes, that’s what I’ll do.”
Would pursuing political science been harder?
No, I loved political science. I knew it, because I spent much of my young adult life in the company of some of the most important political figures in the world. I knew what was happening in the Far East and Europe. I loved history and I was exposed to philosophy at Oxford which was very different from Yale where it was the history of ideas, the history of philosophy. But at Oxford it was very rigorous and it was about logic. At that time, nearly all the philosophers teaching in England were linguistic philosophers, worlds away from the usual philosophy in the United States; a new world for me. Reading Wittgenstein, beginning to understand Locke, Berkeley and Hume was pretty exciting. Oxford was ahead of Yale at that time in the field of philosophy.
Who encouraged you to apply for the Rhodes Scholarship? How did that come to be?
I had been to England in my early years, visited Oxford, and thought it was great. I also knew people who’d been Rhodes Scholars and I said, “Why don’t I try it?” I realized that while I had decided to apply, I had also decided I was going to be an architect. But I said, ”Who’s going to give up the opportunity to go to Oxford?” I knew that PPE at Oxford was one of the greatest degrees you could get.
I applied from Virginia, because I had a much better chance at getting in than from Connecticut and at that time there were no women. If there had been women, I probably wouldn’t have gotten one. It’s much harder now. You’re competing against more people. In retrospect, the selection process is brilliant, because much of it has how you behave under conditions where you’re nervous and under pressure. There were two really good guys who were competing in my group; one was captain of the cadet corps at West Point and the other at Annapolis. If they weren’t selected, they would be shamed. If I was not selected, what the hell. (Laughs) So I was pretty relaxed. I was incredibly happy when I got it, I thought it was the best thing, and I knew my Father was incredibly happy, because it was about something he’d spent a lot of his life on–politics, philosophy, economics.
In retrospect, you only learn about the man Cecil Rhodes after you go to Oxford. I learned much about him later, because I spent time in South Africa. Rhodes was a giant and his notions were sound, a value system of mind, body and leadership potential–the three criteria. I was not a great athlete. I was an oarsman in the my first and last years at Yale; but I wasn’t selected as an athlete. Ham Richardson, for example, who was in my class (’55) was selected, because he was a smart guy who was a great tennis player. But Rhodes was interested in developing the body and the mind. He was looking for those would be potential leaders–the same thing the Greeks thought about. It’s why so many Rhodes Scholars, varied people from different backgrounds, did become leaders. It was perhaps the key quality Rhodes was seeking that has been confirmed over the years by those selected.
Which aspects of what Cecil Rhodes wanted in the scholars do you value or hold in the highest?
To understand others, to grow, to find and refine your talent, to develop good judgment, to deal with life and the sensitivities of the world. Life is not about you. It’s about other people and about how you develop your own skills and get good at what you do. It’s about the kinds of friends you choose and the kinds of causes you espouse. Rhodes, Yale, St. Marks, China, Iran were all about preparing and educating me in so many different ways. If you’re lucky, “education” goes on until the day you die.
The Rhodes is a particular privilege. It was particularly nice to be sent to a great university in a spectacular setting. Physically, Oxford is one of the greatest achievements in Western culture, so that was for me at least as powerful as getting the Rhodes. And you’re in the company of people who are pretty damn good.
The Rhodes Scholars and the program brought you to expect, to want and to be better yourself. It was life not in the fast lane. It was life at the highest levels of aspiration and in the most beautiful setting. What more could you ask for?
Did you have any rebellious streak or stage in your life?
I had one of them when I was at Oxford. Since I had decided I was going to be an architect and not go into the Foreign Service, I didn’t worry as much about how well I was going to do at Oxford. In fact, the second year I decided I was going to leave Oxford, because there were things I wanted to do before I went back to four years of A-school at Yale. My closest friend was from St. Marks and Yale was killed in a car crash. I liked several ladies and wanted to get away from university life if only shortly.
My father at that time was the Assistant Secretary of State for the Far East in Eisenhower’s administration. When I told him I was going to leave, he called me home. I went back and I spent a week with him walking and talking every morning early. He said I should go back and finish. He said all of us have been exaggeratedly influenced by books and I had just read Camus’ La Chute which made me think my place in the world would be different if I did something that was against the grain. In any case, I’m glad I went back; but I’m also glad I left and the conversations I had with my father in that week were worth everything.
There was also in that second year the Hungarian Revolution. One of my classmates was Michael Korda, who is now a famous editor in New York. He was the son of Vincent Korda and nephew of Alexander Korda who made movies. He grew up in Hollywood and went to Le Rosey in Switzerland and had been in the British army. Because he was a Hungarian, we pressured him to go to the Revolution. (A lot of people from Oxford went off to the revolution.) Korda agreed that he would go and I said I would go to France. And because I had a PX card through the Embassy, I would get medicines and bandages. All the stuff they needed, I was going to drive them in.
So you went to Paris with your PX card before you went to D.C. to see your father?
Yes, in the fall term I flew from Oxford to Paris, went to the U.S. Embassy, got a PX card (because they knew whose son I was). I then filled up with penicillin and bandages. At the PX, they looked at it, called back to the Embassy and said, “Young Robertson is shopping and guess what he’s buying?” When I went to give the PX card back at the embassy, they said, “I’m sorry, Mr. Robertson. We’ve talked to your father and there is no way in the world that you are going to be able to go to Hungary with all the supplies. If caught you’ll be held hostage.” If that connection hadn’t been there, I would have gone to Hungary.
The irony is Korda gets captured and they realize he is a Hungarian and say he’s a British spy; so it becomes an affair of state. It takes Britain’s Foreign Secretary to get him out. At that age, even seriously dangerous things were fun and you do them. (Laughs)
Anyway, those things pass without a ripple and you realize as an adult what a stupid idea. Of course, Korda was going to be captured. (Chuckles) If I had been there, they would have had two of us and that would have been a double whammy. You never think about that at the time.
What are you most passionate about now?
What I do. I’m an architect and a town planner. I’ve been doing that for a long time. We’ve been very successful. We have fabulous clients and jobs. It’s what I always wanted to do. But I still love music more than almost anything in the world and I follow politics avidly all the time. Moreover, having met and spent time with Gregory Bateson, I began to understand fundamental ecological issues and how critically they have reshaped my thinking.
And what kind of music do you like?
I like all kinds of music but they are in different boxes. (Laughs) I like popular music. I always have, but classical music is a mainstay of Western culture and if you had to choose one Western artist to send out into space as an example of that culture it would be J.S. Bach because he’s the greatest musician, composer, and artist who ever lived in the West. There’s no one like him or so it seems to me. Once you know Bach then everything else falls into place. (Chuckles)
And you know I read. I’m usually reading four or five books at a time which means it takes a long time to finish them, and I keep going back and rereading stuff. That keeps you alive. I have a wonderful wife; I have dogs and cats and I spend time in the country on the weekends with her and them which is the best part of my life now.
So what would recommend to someone about leading a meaningful and useful life?
I don’t know. Advice is so cheap. (Chuckles) American culture today is in something of a low phase. Las Vegas is the cultural capital of the country with a pretty grungy value system. And there are celebrities always in the world, but almost none of the people who are celebrities now should be on that list. The culture is somewhat infantile and the world is serious, i.e. a mismatch which is really going to hurt us badly.
I admire people who do really significant things and who have character, which in the end is the filter through which everything else passes. There are brilliant people who are bastards; talent is everywhere, but it is talent combined with conviction, character, and values that counts. It’s the only thing that counts. The world is changed by strong people, some of whom are incredibly bad and some fabulous. Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao–the greatest killers in history. And then Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Churchill.
So what would you suggest to a young person about developing their character?
Try to find the older people around you who you like, admire, and trust. They don’t have to be a lot older, or they can be very old. Get them to tell you things about their lives and things that make a difference.
In retrospect of the many people who changed my life, the most important were my Father and Mother, Anya my wife, several friends, Gregory Bateson, Vincent Scully, Joseph Albers, Thomas Jefferson, Andrea Palladio, J.S. Bach, Richard Strauss, Glenn Gould, and of course, a number of dogs and cats who brought me incredible joy and from whom I learned much about our mutual world.