Jeffrey Dungan

Architects of Alys Beach: Jeffrey Dungan

Jeffrey Dungan
Words by: Cassie Condrey Images by: Rob Culpepper

Jeffrey Dungan calls himself too rural, uses phrases like “nine ways to Sunday,” and in the next breath, he will describe so beautifully and tenderly the rolling English countryside and architecture and gardens of The Cotswolds that you too will be moved. He has Bush Hogged his family farm and has a cocktail with St. Germain in it named after him in a bar in Birmingham. In conversation with Jeff, you will know quickly that that piece of land in St. Claire County, Alabama,that he spent his childhood helping tend is still in him—not only in his speech and in his mannerisms and in the delight he takes in telling stories, but also in the foundation it gave him for roaming the world, roaming the contours of his mind, and often of yours too, in order to know more, be more, give and do more.

“I like a little shadow, I like a little in and out, I like a little jiggy jiggy, I like a little thingy over the door.”

Put Jeffrey Dungan on a piece of land and he will have a sketch in mind within minutes. He will note the landscape, the habits of the sun and shade, the best views. He will ask his clients if they like to sleep in, if theylike a midnight snack, and somehow will learn also how they feel about their families, what they need from their homes. The sketch that follows will honor the particular earth and the particular light and always the particular client, but it will also reflect, as it should, Jeff himself. There will be something wild present, something surprising, something with a little “jiggy jiggy.” Just as I would describe him in conversation.

Cassie: You grew up in rural Alabama on a farm?

Jeffrey: I grew up in St. Claire County in a little town called Moody. Doesn’t it sound little? Someone told me once that I had been Mr. Moody and I still was. (laughs)

C: What are some of your fondest memories? J: Growing up on a farm was a hard way to grow up. There’s a letter on my computer from my dad and I just saw that and all of these memories came back. My parents are still there. It was about 100 acres and since then they’ve developed it and sold off parts, but they still have 10 or 12 acres covered in every flowering, growing, fruit-bearing, nut-bearing plant that will grow in zone 7. I was up at the crack of dawn—feeding cows in the wintertime and picking up the dead chickens in the chicken house and putting them in five gallon buckets, throwing them in the woods for the buzzards to take care of. By the time I got to school, I would always laugh at people lazily rubbing sleep out of their eyes and drinking coffee out of a styrofoam cup, waking up. I’d been up for hours. When I was 10, I was out of school for summer and finally, okay, I’m going to have some fun, and my dad said, “I need you to Bush Hog the farm.” There were a lot of different areas and we had names for them. “Start in the bottom and cover the back 40 and get up on the hill and take care of the pond.” I started and days turned into weeks into many weeks and I don’t know how long—maybe a month—after I started, I got up to the top of the mountain and I was done. And finally, now it’s July, I knocked the John Deere out of gear and I sat there with it running on top of the mountain and looked out over my huge accomplishment and I was so proud of myself and happy that now I could go back to fishing and baseball. Then I put the John Deere in gear, start rolling down the hill, probably about a half mile back to the barn, going back over grass I cut, and I get down to the bottom and it’s grazing the top of the tractor tires and I realize that very soon it needs to get mowed again. The cyclical nature of farming blew my ten-year-old mind. It was at that moment that I became an incredible student. I do look back on it with fondness. I miss it is the strange thing.

C: That must have had an incredible influence on how you see the world and design. J: Yes, the momentum of the earth and the terraces of the farm and the great wooded parts of our property and hunting and fishing and just spending a lifetime outside with not much else to do got inside me and it’s still from those places that I get a lot of the inspiration for the work. I just finished a book and I had to figure out a lot about myself. Why I do what I do—for example, I really like for buildings to be a little bit wider at the base than they are at the top. That’s sort of an odd thing——buildings aren’t like that, they’re straight. I do a lot of subtle things to try to loosen a building up and get it not so straight. A lot of those things I can trace back to the shapes of trees and hills and things found in nature.

C: In looking at your sketches, the buildings you design have a sense of different places to them. They have different areas and spaces—and I’m thinking of the back 40 and the pond and… J: That is a little game that I do like to play that has a lot of benefits. When you take a building and you find a way to break it into smaller bits and pieces, you instantly deformalize it. You break the scale of what otherwise could be a large, imposing thing, and you put it down where it’s accessible. I used to say I want to do architecture for truckers. I don’t want for the work to be so intelligent that it’s not accessible.

I like to understand all of the rules so that I can break them.

C: What does it mean to apply classical architecture to the present day? Is it about fluidity? J: Good word. If you study classical architecture or architecture in general and even the orders from Greeks and the Romans, they evolved. We look at it as a static thing because of the distance we’re studying it from, but to think of it that way leaves a lot of imagination and creativity on the table. There are people that are what I call strict classicists—they know all the rules and they know all the orders. I like to understand all of the rules so that I can break them. I look at it with my eyes squinted. I always want to put my spin on it. What do I have to say about that? How can I reinterpret that from two hundred years ago or two thousand years ago for today? As a creative person, I feel like that’s my job.

C: How do you honor the past while creating something that feels present? J: I would say for me that touches on a word called timelessness. An idea called timelessness. I think what I try to do, my game, is to take things that feel traditional, historical, things that feel familiar, and I use those to put us all on the same playing field. But then I'm going to mess with that. What I’m doing is sandblasting off the pastiche or overly ornamental. I’m sandblasting off the bull---- so I can get something pure. I feel that that is a modern interpretation of traditional architecture. I’m trying to get something pure.

C: So you strip away and then there is the element of adding back in. J: Yes, I think detail is important. I think some people are more successful at stripping things away than I am. I like a little curve. I like a little shadow, I like a little in and out, I like a little jiggy jiggy, I like a little thingy over the door. For whatever reason I am not disciplined or German enough to just boil it down to a stainless steel sheet of glass because I find that to be cold. I stay on the warm side of modernism. I call myself a closet modernist.

C: So, at an early age did you know you wanted to design? J: Nope. I liked to draw and drawing turned into painting and painting turned into a real fascination and real emotional connection to art. I always liked watercolor the best because watercolor isn’t painting it’s staining paper. It’s a very different thing. You have to take your mistakes and turn them into a tree, or something. It’s a controlled chaos when you’re doing a wash like a sky and it’s just pure color. I think I probably wanted to be an artist of some kind. I took some lessons from locally, regionally famous artists that my mom badgered into giving me lessons. They gave lessons to rich little old ladies but my mom got me into them and I was in the corner painting. On Tuesdays when I was a senior in high school, I didn’t go to football practice. I went after school to art class. I took a lot of grief for that but when you’re the most valuable player on the football team you can get away with certain things… (laughs).

C: You’ve traveled the world for work and leisure. What called you to stay and build your life here in Alabama? J: I just sort of grew where I was planted. I had zero connections. Nobody from my family went to college. We weren’t wealthy at all. We didn’t miss meals but we probably didn’t have a whole lot. I traded a cow for my first automobile. You can't make these things up. It was a 1969 Datsun green pickup truck and I just souped that thing up to death. It was the coolest little truck and I drove it until I went to college. I sold it for eight hundred dollars and got a Camaro and went to college. So, I was just sort of here and I didn’t know anything else. Birmingham was a big city to me, from where I came from, and when I graduated in the late eighties there was a pretty decent recession. There weren’t a whole lot of jobs so if you could get a job you were glad to have it. I had one through a summer internship. I stayed. I love the South. I’m a Southern boy and that’s all there is to it. I love New York, I love Chicago, I spent a lot of time in both of those places. I go to New York every six weeks, have a lot of friends there. As much as I am attracted to it, as amazing as it is, I could never live there. I’m too rural. I need elbow room.

C: When you’re from a rural place, I think you have a greater sense of belonging to a place than people who grow up in a more cosmopolitan area. J: Yes, because it has to do with the land. It’s a connection to the earth. It’s spiritual, it’s soulful, it’s emotional, it’s palpable, it’s real.

C: What does it mean to design a house, not a house but a home? J: I struggle with that. People ask me that a lot and I wince because I think only a family, only the people who live there, can make a house a home. I don’t think I can do that. I’m limited by time and space. I would say though that I’m a very intuitive person. I did my thesis in architecture on the intuitive and using your intuition in design. I’m not clairvoyant, I’m not a mind reader, but in five seconds I can look at you and sort of get you— it’s how you look at me, how you dress, how your eyes are. And if you talk, well in five minutes you’re toast. It’s sort of like a muscle—the more you use it the better you get at it. I’m only using it primarily to understand a human being that’s not me. Because I want to design for your soul. I want to design the house you would design for yourself. It’s like a suit. I’ve worn a lot of nice suits, but it was not until I had a suit made for me and that Italian fabric fell onto my body and I had that experience that I really understood what true couture meant. So I want to do that for people.

C: What gives a house longevity, a story and history? J: It damn sure involves not following every little trend and all this crap that America especially is so good at coming out with—a new gadget every day. People ask me what the trends are and I say I don’t know and frankly don’t want to. I hope it’s making beautiful places, but don’t talk to me about trends. In terms of history, I’m trying to create places that are heirlooms. When somebody talks to me about flipping—well, I’m not your guy. Absolutely no interest. Like this thing is so made for you you would never think about selling it. It’s a custom suit, it costs a gazillion dollars, you can’t sell that to somebody else—it wouldn’t fit. Right? That suit has your initials on the cuff! When you take that view, right there, and you drive that through the whole process, you’re done. You’re never going to sell it. That’s why I really wanted to call my book The Forever House. It’s the last damn house you’re going to be in. They’re going to take your ass out feet first.

Now what’s the earth doing? What’s the site telling me? You can feel it. And that is where this connection, this soulful connection, of us as human beings to the earth happens.

C: Each space you design is incredibly emotive. It’s almost as if without seeing a person in the space you can imagine the feelings they may experience while at home in that environment. How do you bring such spirit into the spaces you create? I imagine it has something to do with how well you know your clients, what you understand about them. J: I have no idea but that is one of the biggest compliments in terms of my architecture that you can give to me. Because I am after that. I want emotion. I want soulful places. I think a lot of it has to do again with the materiality. I think it also has to do with the way the light comes into rooms. Getting light into spaces from at least two different directions, every room. You have to know the orientation of the building, understanding where the sun comes up and goes down—first thing I want to know. Alright now where’s the view? Where’s the bad view? Now what’s the earth doing? What’s the site telling me? You can feel it. And that is where this connection, this soulful connection, of us as human beings to the earth happens. Whether or not you believe the creation story as told in the Bible, Adam was the first man and the word for earth is Adamah. So, even linguistically, we were connected to the jump.

C: Of it. J: Yes, of it. All the way through. Dirt. We are dirt and become dirt again eventually. Architecturally, when people look at it and think that house just feels like it grew up out of the ground. Put it on the epitaph, that’s the best it gets. When I get that, that’s like bam, that’s it. A house that is comfortable on its site, you can just feel it and it’s important.

C: I often find that creativity begets creativity. The exploration of other creative outlets helps you to grow and focus creative gifts. How do you continue to grow yourself creatively? J: There are a few but one thing that I like to do is play chess. There are a lot of very complicated scenarios that you get into in a chess game and it makes you think sometimes crazy way out of the box kind of thoughts. I play chess almost everyday. There’s little puzzles that they’ll give you to solve; it’s war on a board. I find that it is a creative thing.

C: What do you think design can do? And why does good design matter? J: That question is pretty powerful because that is what you’re really trying to get at—what is the essence of it. When it’s at its best, it can empower us to be our best selves, our better selves. I want to help people live better lives. It can enable us to have that rare sense of home and those rare feelings of serenity and peace. I think design at its highest level can define a culture. The ingenuity, the intelligence, the thoughtfulness, the beauty, the aesthetic. All of those things come not solely but a lot through the design that that group of people did or do. It’s quite powerful.

C: Alys Beach. What are you feelings about AB and designing a home there? J: Well, I have a lot of feeling about Alys Beach. It started a long time ago in a meeting with a lot of other designers and architects. We talked it out and thought through and set a course toward a place that was very different and in my mind it was very pure. It has become that. The aesthetic became much more powerful, much larger over time. Also I think the density of it. I don’t know any place like that in America. It’s a little bit like New Orleans. If you take the white stucco aesthetic away and you’re just talking about the urbanism of it and the forms then you go to medieval places. You go to Spain and you go to Amsterdam and you go to France. If you want to bring the white aesthetic and the stucco back into it, you go to Greece, Santorini. I just find it to be a sort of fantastical kind of place, but so far not one that’s gotten off track and become a Disneyland. Because of the urbanism and the planning and because of the work of a lot of really talented architects, I think it’s become something very unique and very other. For all those reasons it holds a special place in my mind and in my heart. I’ve always been excited whenever I have had the opportunity to do something there. It asks you to rise to a higher level in your thinking. There are just challenges when you’re dealing with pieces of property that are 40 feet square— as one project I worked on there was— and it’s touching these other buildings. It’s a challenge just to get that to work. And then you get into the plasticity of it which always has been very touching to me. From a form standpoint you have concrete which can take pretty much any shape and so it feels very free. Someone said with freedom comes much responsibility and that’s how I feel when I work there.

C: How do you start your day? Do you have a routine that you stick with through work or travel, a daily ritual? J: I like to keep my mornings to myself, my early morning time. I read, I study, I meditate, I exercise and I’ll explore some inspirational things. I get up early every day.

C: A perfect Saturday. What do you eat? What do you drink? Who are you with? Where do you go? J: I love Saturdays. You wake up and you’re like I don’t have anything that I have to do today. I love that. In the fall Saturdays are a lot about football. But they’re always my unplugged days. I’ll get a cup of coffee. If my kids are with me we’ll either go to the Pancake House or I’ll cook. A lot of times they want me to cook and I love to cook breakfast. I make a big ole frittata in a big ole skillet with all kinds of stuff out of my garden. I work in the garden some. I like music. Eat breakfast about 9:30. I love brunch. If I get up and I feel really lazy and I don’t eat anything then my fiancée Lindsey and I will go have brunch somewhere. Coffee and then mimosas. I very rarely will work on a Saturday morning unless I’ve been working on something I’m just really into at that moment. And that doesn’t even feel like work anyway.

C: Do you have a favorite cocktail? J: Ha, I have way too many favorite cocktails. I drink bourbon in the fall and clear stuff in the spring and summertime. There are different cocktails that you can go and order in different places in Birmingham that I created and they have my name on them. There’s one that we call the Architect—it’s Hendricks gin and St. Germain and prosecco with a little lemon twist. It’s light and refreshing and really good when it’s 95 degrees out. It’s a riff on a French 75. Then there’s next door a drink called the Dungan, more of a fall drink. It’s Manhattan-like—bourbon but with Bulleit Rye and a splash of Cointreau and a little fizz, Schwepps Ginger Ale is the best, then a cherry. The same drink at another restaurant is called The Game Day. I told my bartender buddy about it and so anytime I go in there in the fall as soon as we walk in the door he just starts making me a Game Day.

C: It’s good to have your people. Do you listen to music when you design? J: I like music when I’m being creative. I have a bunch of little speakers. I make playlists. I’m a control freak when I’m being creative. I want the vibe to stay one certain way and it can’t be up to some DJ so I’ll listen to playlists. I have 20 playlists and I’ll make them different times of year and name them different things.

C: Give me an example. J: Head and the Heart, Preston Lovinggood who is a buddy of mine, The National, Houndmouth… That playlist is called Had to Hear. It’s August Now is one of my favorite playlists—it’s got Landslide but the Smashing Pumpkins version, Wilco, Ryan Adams, Father John Misty, Lenny Kravitz, Radiohead, Dire Straits…. Have to throw some of the old stuff makes it in there, can’t be all this new stuff.

C: You mentioned your book earlier. Tell us more. J: It’s called The Nature of Home—a double entendre—and it’s really about my journey in trying to discover timelessness. I want my work to be relevant across time. And it needs to draw forth something—that emotional response. It has to speak on a soul level, on a heart level I think.

C: Does that involve your knowing the client or you can do that without truly knowing the client? J: That’s a good question but I think when you’re speaking from your heart and you get the energy and the emotion into it, it’ll speak to anybody else that has a heart that’s listening. In terms of the client, that’s a very specific message to them. And it’s also a very specific message from them into the world. I say it all the time—your house says something about you whether you like it or not. If you're thoughtful enough about it, you can send a beautiful message into the world. Somebody said great architecture is a gift to the street. It’s with that kind of purpose that I try to create architecture.

C: It can elevate the surroundings. It says that you take yourself and your community seriously in some way. J: Yes. It shows you care. It can also of course say that you’re trying to show you’re rich. But I think you can tell the difference between I care and I’m obviously trying to impress people. I think it’s wonderful to see people that care, even if a little bit they’re trying to impress us. It’s the way they keep up their yard—the landscaping or the lack of it.

When we experience the beautiful there is a sense of homecoming.

C: It’s about beauty too. Valuing beauty is not about showing that you’re rich. You can have a small, humble little home and yard and still take care of it in a way that adds something to your environment. J: I paraphrase this quote a little bit which I tend to do. Bend it to my needs at the time. But to your questions about home and beauty—the human soul is hungry for beauty. We seek it everywhere in landscape, gardening, music, and in ourselves. When we experience the beautiful there is a sense of homecoming. John O’Donoghue said that.

C: No doubt. J: On a deeper level, when we experience beauty, we feel a sense of home.

C: When does your book, The Nature of Home, come out? J: September 4th. I took my time and tried to do it the best way I could which turned out to be time-consuming and expensive. But it was definitely worth it. I’m very proud of it. Proud of the work that’s in it and the people I did the homes for and the people I did the homes with.They’re all mentioned in stories through the book. I think for me personally the best part was having a much greater cognizant understanding of what I’m doing and why I do it the way I do it. Because for me those things were very from the heart and very intuitive. When I tried to find a way to put it all in words, it was very thought-provoking and very challenging and very uncomfortable. The best way I can say it is it felt like I was plowing up my heart and soul to get at what’s underneath it. Writing to find out what I think, as Joan Didion said.

C: Thanks for being open and honest and easy to talk to. J: My dad told me a long time ago that plain speech was easily understood. And I’ve always tried best I could to speak frankly and plainly. I’m not smart enough to do it any other way. Too much work.