Back to his roots

Princeton architect brings a bold vision from the West Coast.

By: Dara-Lyn Shrager
   When Jon Drezner moved back to his hometown of Princeton in August, he had no idea how many people would be delighted to hear the news of his return.
   Old friends, neighbors, Princeton Day schoolmates and fans of his work as an architect turned out at a gala held in Princeton in November to welcome him home.
   As a young architect who had spent the years since graduate school at Southern California Institute of Architecture, living and working in California, Mr. Drezner found that the move back home was monumental both in terms of the geographic change and the cultural adjustment from the West to the East Coast.
   "Actually," he quips, "we moved back for a large Conte’s sausage pie and Thomas Sweet’s coffee Oreo ice cream."
   Mr. Drezner seems to have taken the transition in stride and is already hard at work in his studio designing models for upcoming projects.
   Most recently, the fashionable W hotel chain asked Mr. Drezner to design a model for their newest hotel in Los Angeles. He is one of only a handful of architects from around the world asked to make such a proposal. His completed model, with its elliptical balconies, great expanses of windows and wavy contours, led this reporter to wonder if the Starship Enterprise hadn’t been reinterpreted as a hotel.
   Mr. Drezner denies being a Trekkie, but his design style — which orbits halfway between the future and the surreal — takes a great deal of inspiration from the imagination.
   In what ways did a childhood in Princeton shape the man he has become?
   "I remember going to Michael Graves’ studio in the late ’60s when I was about 8 years old." (At the time, Mr. Graves was designing a home in Princeton for Mr. Drezner’s parents.)
   "He had all these great models in his office that he had built from foam core, wood and glue," Mr. Drezner recalls.
   "You know, my dad is a surgeon, and my grandfather was a doctor, and I could see a connection between the medical arts and architecture," Mr. Drezner continues. "That just fascinated me."
   An increasingly prominent figure in the world of architecture, Mr. Drezner is producing designs that captivate the imagination of his clients and his peers.
   A barn-like addition to an existing farmhouse on Mountain Church Road in Hopewell features 3,500 square feet of heavy timber construction. A four-story spiral staircase, built inside an abstracted silo, relies on a telephone pole for its central support.
   Elsewhere, the ribs of the addition consist of Douglas fir, which was laminated in Canada to a specific curvature that matches Drezner’s highly detailed design plan.
   Architects are like actors; out of the masses who dream of a career in the field, only a few manage to gain recognition.
   "As soon as I finished school in 1989, I began working for Frank Gehry in his Santa Monica firm," Mr. Drezner explains.
   "The best part of that experience was working with him personally on the widely publicized redesign of his home in Santa Monica. I really got to know him during the year and half (1991-1992) we spent on that project."
   During the next eight years, Mr. Drezner continued to work in Mr. Gehry’s firm as a project designer and project architect. His many high-profile projects there included the 10,000-square-foot Montreal Museum of Decorative Arts, the renovation of the 250-seat Merrifield Lecture Hall and a 850-car parking lot at Los Angeles Loyola Law School.
   In 1997, Mr. Drezner left Mr. Gehry’s firm to begin his own, Drezner Group, Inc., and designed a number of ice centers and sports arenas. He also built and continues to build contemporary homes and additions for clients in the United States and Canada.
   His favorite kind of client, be it a corporation or a home owner, is one who likes to explore art and design beyond the norm.
   "To be good at this," Mr. Drezner says, "I have to understand what makes a building well-constructed and functional. That’s why I like getting into my workshop and cutting wood on my band saw and gluing things together. If I know how to put a model together with my own hands, I gain a deep insight into how the project will work."
   A graduate of Princeton Day School, Mr. Drezner has brought his talents back to the place where it all began for him.
   "My family moved onto Castle Howard Court in 1965 when there were only half a dozen other houses on that street," Mr. Drezner recalls. "I grew up around a lot of construction."
   Mr. Drezner’s designs are as much about optical illusion as functional form. Circles, half-circles, arching bands of timber and improbably vaulted windows grace his most ambitious projects to date. To look at one of his designs is to be transported into the future. Not the kitschy neon world of sci-fi movies, but the outer, atmospheric, dreamy space beyond our reach.
Drezner Group, Inc., Architects can be reached in Princeton at (609) 921-0866.