SOMERS, N.Y. – Octogenarian Roy Van Lent has been practicing architecture in the Somers area for more than half a century. Some local buildings that bear his stamp include the meeting room extension at the Elephant Hotel, the Citibank building and Il Forno Trattoria. Farther afield, he has designed houses on the Titicus Reservoir and Block Island, as well as the Norman Vincent Peale complex in Pawling.
“Some people work for eight hours a day, and then lead their lives after work. As an architect, you’re doing what you really want to do from the get-go,” Van Lent said. “It consumes your entire life.”
“My son studied anthropology at Columbia and turned to architecture later,” he continued. “I told him, I wouldn’t advise anyone to be an architect unless you really love it and feel like it’s the only thing you can do. It’s a tough life, time demanding, not very lucrative and very often frustrating. Even the studies are tough.”
Has he developed his own style over the decades? “We do what’s appropriate for the location, for the intended use, and for the personalities of the people. It’s not a one-size-fits-all profession,” he said. “I approach my work as a problem solver. I solve problems for people, for towns, for villages and for communities.”
Van Lent was studying architecture at Pratt Institute when his entire class decided to enlist in the U.S. Army during World War II. The war brought him to the fighting fields of France and eventually to Paris.
He resumed his education after the war, first at the Royal Institute of British Architects, then back at Pratt, where he completed his degree. But post-war France beckoned, and he fulfilled the dream of many budding architects by returning to Paris to take courses at the prestigious Ecole des Beaux Arts.
One day, Van Lent and some American friends dropped in at the Paris studio of the renowned Swiss architect Le Corbusier, familiarly known as Corbu, and asked if they could apprentice. To their surprise, he took them on.
“There were 23 different nationalities working in that studio,” he recalls. “Corbu was an internationalist. And a nice guy. He always wore a bow tie to work.
“The studio was in an old monastery. Corbu’s office was a black box, about 12 feet square, right in the center. It had no windows and one light bulb. He said he didn’t want to be distracted by anything.” While there, Van Lent worked on Corbu’s famous Unité d’Habitation in Marseilles, forerunner of today’s high-rise apartment building.
Van Lent was back in the U.S. in 1956, setting up his own architectural firm in Somers, where he still practices in partnership with his son, Paul.
As for retirement, Van Lent said, “Gen. MacArthur said ‘Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.’ Old architects just erase away.”