The Artist Evolving: The Works of Bruce Nagel

Photo: Chip Forelli

Florence, Italy, gave the world the Renaissance, the brilliance of Michelangelo and Brunelleschi, the legacies of Machiavelli and the Medici. It has not, at least by popular accounts of history, given anything directly to the Hamptons. Until you stroll through architect Bruce Nagel’s door on Main Street in Westhampton Beach.

Sitting at the long table that stretches down the center of the space across the street from the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center, Nagle has his back to a series of 16 black-and-white photos of some of the most stunning architectural works the Hamptons has known.

Each is unique, there is no cookie-cutter style here, and each is reflective of Nagel’s personal approach to architecture, the love of connecting and interacting with people that informs his work. Architecture is, at its heart, not necessarily about boards and beams, or even blueprints. Designs are drafted to realize dreams. There is science to it, but also art and a humanity that, for Nagel, in some sort of variation on a golden mean, tips things in the latter direction.

The sensibility that drove Nagel to open this space is the same one that long ago made him ask his clients to write a narrative about the home they envisioned, how they pictured themselves living, down to every possible detail and adjective they can conjure, before he would begin its design. Reading these lines, and what’s between them, Nagel says, “is trying to learn more about them as people instead of just learning what their needs are. Because needs are one thing, feelings and comfort and attitude are better, because I want to add a color or a flavor to what they are trying to achieve.”

In the mid 1970s, having just graduated from Harvard, Nagel headed off to see Europe, and his love affair with Florence began. From the tone in his voice, it will never end. “I kept coming back to Florence. It just felt, the city had a certain scale, and it is just jam-packed full of architectural treasures. There’s not a lot of cities where you can walk around and see angels on the sides of buildings.”

A larger influence than any of the structures, however, were the people he met. “That was kind of the beginning for me of realizing how much I like people,” he says. “When I was in Italy, people were so friendly, open, warm.”

Over the ensuing decades, Nagel went back on short visits, but about eight or nine years ago, New York winters finally getting to be enough for the boy from San Antonio, he and his wife, Darlene, decided to take an extended trip. One year followed the next, and Nagel discovered that he could not only work in Florence for a month or so while ice covered the East End, but that he wanted to bring back an intangible piece of the culture, one naturally connected to the people. 

“When you’re in Florence, there is such a social interaction between people who are on the street and, in many cases, in stores–clothing or whatever. People go into those places and they don’t feel like they have to be taken out of that space because they didn’t buy anything. People are talking, asking questions, it’s social. It’s a social interaction, it’s not just a commercial venture…. So we fostered this idea, about doing an architectural office that made people feel like that.”

They chose Westhampton Beach for its particular culture, the nighttime strollers with ice cream cones or concert tickets in hand, the couples and the families enjoying the street musicians and gazing in the shop windows, all of whom he is happy to have come through the door. The space has evolved into as much a gallery as an office since 2016. No longer a solo operation, this spring it became home to Bruce Nagel & Partners Architects, which now has its creative roots not just in the Hamptons but in New York City, Dallas, Chicago and Rome, Italy. Nagel’s three partners–Judith DiMaio, David Walker and Chris Scorgie–are all colleagues from some incarnation of his past, each of whom brings expertise and experience in an area where Nagel’s longtime focus on homes, such as hospitality and hotels, high-end retail space, even institutions like Ivy League universities.

Their talents are certainly reason enough for Nagel to have aligned with them, but the greater success seems to be from the mutual interactions and discussions he now gets to be part of regularly. “When you work alone, there’s only so much time you can spend talking to yourself,” he half-joke. “It gets to be a little bit lonely.”

And the whole purpose of, well, everything, really, in Nagel’s world is to connect and share and discover. Just look around the walls here, a showplace for architecture, surely, but also for a side to the man that not many have been introduced to yet: Bruce Nagle, Photographer.  “I’m an advanced amateur,” he says, humbly, “but it’s a passion I have. One of the things many architects have in their repertoire is, many architects are artists.”

On the wall opposite the shots of his architecture is a set of 16 photos made by Nagel himself. Each a moment, a vision, a feeling from a point in time between right now and when he began shooting at age 18. They range in subject from birch trees to a box of old tools, an eclectic mix that Nagel’s wife selected from the tens of thousands of photos he’s done over the years, each a glimpse at the world not only through Nagel’s lens, but through his eyes. Individually and taken together, they evoke the soul of one of his true inspirations, Ansel Adams. “You don’t make a photograph just with a camera,” Adams said. “You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.”

By design, the photos here at 69 Main Street are all black-and-white–both Nagel’s and those of his architecture, which he never shoots, being too close to the subject–the get viewers focusing not on blue skies or green lawns, but on the elements of the architecture, the objects. Nagel has spent a career orchestrating meaning within spaces, so in defining this home for the photos, for himself to work, for guests, strangers and friends alike to enter, he has created a venue that naturally sparks reflection, contemplation, interaction. 

“One of the wonderful things that happens in Florence is, because people live in such tight quarters, the streets and the piazzas of the city become people’s living rooms,” Nagel says. “And people get out of their apartments at night, whole families, husbands, wives, children, grandparents, all together, sitting in the piazza, talking, seeing their friends. Consequently, that’s one of the things that attracted us about trying to do the gallery. We can’t build a piazza right outside of our space, but we can open the door and say everybody is welcome to come in.”

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