Architect Joel Levinson

by Pete Mazzaccaro

Last weekend, the Nichols Berg Gallery of Chestnut Hill, 8611 Germantown Ave., kicked off a different kind of show. It is not the work of an artist, per se. Not that of a painter, illustrator or a sculptor, but something different.

The show features the collected work of Joel Levinson, an accomplished architect and modern Renaissance man who has spent the last 60 some years creating a vast body of artistic works – painting, sketching and taking several hundred thousand photographs. Samples of all that, in addition to a number of plans and architectural mock-ups, will constitute the show, which will run at the gallery through June 25.

Levinson, 73, has been a Chestnut Hill fixture since he opened his office in the neighborhood in 1969. He has had an accomplished career as an architect, with a number of notable private homes and institutional buildings to his credit. Last week, he led me around the new offices of Elfant Wissahickon, at 8039 Germantown Ave., which was redesigned with an exterior facelift and a roomy, contemporary and well-lit new interior by Levinson.

“It’s been a rewarding career,” Levinson said reflecting on his life’s work.

The funny thing, though, is Levinson didn’t always want to be an architect. Long before that, as a boy growing up in Strawberry Mansion and West Mt Airy (his parents moved their family to Glen Echo Road when Levinson was 8), Levinson was interested in a variety of different things. He aspired to be a writer, and, for a time, was convinced he should be a farmer.

“My father told me there was no such thing as a Jewish farmer,” Levinson said.

Instead, his father insisted that he find a “reliable profession.”

“My father went through a list of 13 or so things I could be,” Levinson said. “As soon as he hit architecture, I knew that was the thing. I think it was a good choice – I like the diversity of the projects, I was eager to get out on my own and did as soon as I could.”

After attending Perkiomen Preparatory School, where he says he first began to really flourish as a student, Levinson enrolled in the architecture program at University of Pennsylvania. It was a heady time for the school, then a five-year undergraduate program. It was the home of great contemporary architects of the time: Robert Venturi and Louis Kahn.

“Venturi was my best professor in the sense that he encouraged me to be myself,” Levinson said. “He would make a little doodle about something, and it would just open up an avenue of thinking. He was non-formulaic. So much of his book, “Complexity and Contradiction” resonated with me.”

Levinson said he was dedicated to his architecture courses. So much so that he was thrown out of Penn at one point for being “excessively personal.” He had to write an essay on the term in order to be readmitted.

“I think it meant that I was only doing what I felt like doing,” he said. “I flunked every math course I took. I pored myself into writing. “

The thing was, Levinson was really into following his own muse. By the time he had entered college, he was already “obsessed” (his word choice, not mine) with writing and photography. He also dabbled in painting and sketching, but spent a great deal of time with other artistic pursuits. Before he had gotten to college, Levinson became an avid photographer. And he was also a committed writer.

An early painting by Joel Levinson that is part of the show.

“When I was 14 or 15, my mother gave me an Argus C3 camera,” Levinson said. “ I took to it like, you know, it was so natural. I had a latent vision, composition sense about things. I read and mastered the technical things, read Ansel Adams books, worked my way into a single lens reflex camera and realized, ‘Hey I’m not bad at this. My skill here is above average.’”

Levinson has taken pictures ever since. He doesn’t go on vacation without a camera and has hundreds of thousands of images. He shoots digital now, and it’s been a way for him to do even more with playing with the composition of his subjects.

In addition to all those photographs, Levinson has been a practicing writer. He recently finished a novel about a Bosnian man who is driven to kill his mother in order to prevent her rape at the hands of Serbian soldiers. Two agents have shown interest, he said, provided he make necessary “tweaks” to the protagonists.  And he has been working on one architectural book on “Diagonality” that he began when he was still a student at Penn 40 years ago.

“[Diagonality] treats a subject that has not really been addressed in architectural history literature and art literature,” he said. “The 20th century started and suddenly the right angle wasn’t out the window, but it began to be supplanted. You look at buildings today – you can’t even find a right angle. When I was at Penn, I’m looking at Kahn’s work, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and the different angles, and I was wondering,’ where did all this stuff come from?’”

Levinson said he has done an enormous amount of research on the subject and hopes he can manage to get the book published.

“The question is, will I get it done before I kick the bucket?” Levinson said. “ To me it would be a crying shame if it didn’t see the light. In a certain sense, it’s a revelatory work. It’s a rich vein of philosophical thought and aesthetic motif that just cries out to be presented, so I have to grow up and get finished.”

"Foxglove in a Fern Leaf," a photo by Joel Levinson

The remarkable thing is that Levinson has managed to follow these pursuits while maintaining a rich professional career. From the time he did his first job, a taproom redesign for a client of his father, Levinson has worked on a remarkable number of buildings, including the “Arbor House,” a home in Elkins Park that was recently placed on a prominent architectural tour of contemporary, significant homes.

Levinson met the owners of the Nichols Berg Gallery through the Arbor House. The gallery owners Scott Nichols and Steve Berg wanted to buy the Arbor House, but it never worked out. Levinson learned that the interested buyers were opening a gallery in Chestnut Hill and went to introduce himself. They soon organized the gallery’s current showing of Levinson’s work.

On keeping all these things going, Levinson said there’s no other way for him. He said he believes it was tough on his family obligations.

“I don’t think I was a great father in some respects,” he said. “I didn’t nurture as much as I could have.” (His son Aaron Levinson is a Grammy-winning music producer and his daughter Julie Levinson is an executive chef with Stephen Starr, so something worked right there.)

“But there’s a lot of knowledge I’ve gained from my self-interest that I can now share with my kids,” he said. “ When you have an obsession, you just have to follow it.”

Anyone who can find his or her way to the Nichols Berg gallery this month can see the fruits of those obsessions first hand.