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A. James Speyer (1913-1986)

Dates of Interview:

June 11, 12, 13, 18, 19, 1986

Location of Interview:

Speyer's office at The Art Institute of Chicago


Pauline A. Saliga

Length of Transcript:

141 pages
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Biographical Summary

A. James Speyer was born in 1913 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He received his bachelor's degree in architecture from the Carnegie Institute of Technology in 1934, and continued his graduate education at the Chelsea Polytechnic in London and the Sorbonne in Paris (1934-37). He also spent two additional years studying under Ludwig Mies van der Rohe at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, from which he received his master's degree in 1939. Speyer served in the military during World War II. In 1946 he became a Professor of Architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology while also maintaining a private practice designing residences. Between 1957 and 1960 Speyer was also Visiting Fulbright Professor at National University in Athens, Greece. In 1961 he left IIT to became Curator of Twentieth Century Paintings and Sculpture at The Art Institute of Chicago, where he was highly regarded for his innovative exhibitions and installations. Speyer remained at the Art Institute until his death in 1986.

Interview Highlights

Speyer speaks about his architectural education at Carnegie Institute of Technology; the influence of the International Style exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art; architectural education at Chelsea Polytechnic in London; working for the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company; Mies van der Rohe; teaching methods and message of the curriculum at IIT; furniture design in relation to architecture; the Institute of Design; Mies's retirement and losing the Illinois Institute of Technology campus commission; in Greece; job as Curator of Twentieth Century Paintings and Sculpture at The Art Institute of Chicago; organizing an exhibition of Mies van der Rohe's work at The Art Institute of Chicago.

Stanley G. Harris, Jr. House; Glencoe, Illinois, 1950. Photograph by Richard Nickel, courtesy of the Richard Nickel Committee.

Jerome Apt House; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1953. Photograph by John Vinci.

Interview Excerpt

"Hopefully, those students [who were listening], at a later date if they had the spirit and ability to do it, would have been able to do things of their own, original, increasingly different from the model, but maybe with the same principles embodied. I have always felt that in painting or in any of the arts, including architecture, it doesn't mean anything to say so-and-so was influenced by so-and-so....I think it's much more interesting that Mies van der Rohe was influenced by [Karl Friedrich] Schinkel. I think what Mies van der Rohe did himself is much more interesting. I think that Mies van der Rohe had absorbed the principles of Schinkel, he had absorbed the principles of [Peter] Behrens, he had absorbed the principles of the Jugendstil and [H.P.] Berlage, and medieval art and so forth. I think at the same time that Mies's students--I would probably be a good example--would absorb Mies's principles and I don't believe that my architectural expression would be what it is today if I did not have these principles. I do not feel at all that I am copying Mies. I feel beholden to Mies in any architectural expression I may make. I feel grateful for the principles with which I was imbued, but on the other hand, I do not feel that it is to my detriment that I was influenced." (p. 84)

Additional Resources

Finding Aid to A. James Speyer Collection, 1931-1996
A. James Speyer images in the R&B Archives
Related archival materials in the R&B Archives
Works by or related to Speyer in the Department of Architecture and Design

Funding for this oral history was provided by The Art Institute of Chicago and the Canadian Centre for Architecture, with additional support from Suzette Morton Davidson.
Funding for the electronic presentation of this transcript was provided by a grant from the Illinois Humanities Council.