Eamon Aldrich: Doghouse Architect

THE OFFICES of Aldrich + Rover are spacious and lightly furnished. A small reception vestibule, home to two Barcelona chairs and accompanying Granada footstools, leads into the work area. There are drafting desks, and several long reclaimed wood tables atop which sit computers and printers. The ceilings are high and exposed; the walls are bare and white. There are many windows. On this day in late spring, sun pours in.

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Eamon Aldrich’s desk is in the corner, near a large window overlooking a North London dog park. Late afternoons he likes to lean back in his chair and spend a few moments watching the Labradors and beagles and dachshunds at play, a bit of quiet contemplation for the world’s foremost doghouse architect.

Today there isn’t time for such reflection; a deadline looms. A Swiss cuckoo clock heiress who commissioned a seasonal doghouse for her mastiff is coming to review the plans, and the office is bustling. The Aldrich + Rover staff, 23 full-time employees, is small when judged by the amount of work the firm takes on, a testament both to the skill and tenacity of the associates and to the efficiency of Aldrich’s management. Nearly everyone here is late-20s or early-30s, including Aldrich, who is 29. Only his business partner, Rover, is over 40, though Rover, an affenpinscher-Great Dane mix, is just eight in human years.

Aldrich is paging through drawings of the mastiff doghouse and seems unsettled. “I thought we’d decided to extend the chalet’s eaves and widen the doorway? Is the door wider? Am I missing it?” The project lead, a woman named Ana, says the doorway has been enlarged by two inches. Aldrich nods. “The client is a mastiff, Ana, and he has a mate. We need to widen it substantially more.”

Aldrich and I leave the office and walk around the corner to Seed Hole, a vegan café where he, a strict vegetarian, eats lunch most days. Over quinoa salad he tells me that as a boy he hadn’t wanted to be an architect at all, but a veterinarian. His father was an epaulet repairman for the Royal Air Force, and Eamon was born on a small RAF base outside Rio de Janeiro, an only child. He loved animals and started keeping pets at a very early age. “I just sort of gathered the creatures I’d come across in the forest,” he said. “Our house and yard quickly became rather zoo-like. We had anteaters and sloths and monkeys coming and going, and any number of gorgeous frogs and snakes with these vivid, striking colors.” At one point, young Aldrich made a list of the animals he’d assembled in or around his family’s home and tallied 127 species.

When Eamon was twelve his father was transferred back to Britain, and the 127 species didn’t make the trip. The family’s new London neighborhood wasn’t conducive to collecting animals, nor their flat conducive to keeping them, and Eamon grew despondent. “Honestly, those were the only friends I’d had, the animals,” he said. “I felt I’d been torn from my home, from my friends, forced to leave this bright and wonderful place for this very dreary, very lonely one.” His mother, Agatha, noticed her son’s depression, and one rainy day Eamon returned from school to find the family had a new member, a puppy, who he named Pelé.

Pelé quickly outgrew the Aldriches’ compact apartment, so Eamon and his mother went shopping for a doghouse. It was a rough outing. “Oh, it was awful,” Aldrich recalled. “Fully awful. I mean, they were laughable, these sorts of prefabricated, ersatz, log cabin–type structures. Some even had insulting bits of stereotypical ornamentation tacked on—random bones over the door, or whatever.” He takes a drink of matcha tea, shakes his head. “All these years later, and it’s still dreadful to think about. I knew Pelé. And I knew he would’ve hated those things.”

So young Eamon, just thirteen years old, decided he would build Pelé’s doghouse himself.

PALM SPRINGS ISN’T at its most pleasant in June, when digital thermometers show three digits and the southern California sun gets abusive before breakfast. But Aldrich, tall, trim, and punctilious as ever in his uniform of custom blue suit and crisp, tailored white shirt, doesn’t seem to mind. “I love the sun and the heat. It’s my natural habitat,” he says, flashing a rare smile. The smile disappears. “Tough place for a dog, though.”

Two days after I’d visited Aldrich’s London offices we were here, in the Coachella Valley, and two days later Aldrich would be in Macau, and then on to Shanghai, and finally to India to review construction of a doghouseboat on the Ganges. This sort of travel is not unusual for him; it’s common for Aldrich to be on the road 40 weeks of the year, presenting to competition juries, checking on projects, and, most often, meeting with clients and their owners. Whether this peripateticism is necessary is beside the point. It’s how Aldrich has always worked, and how he intends to keep on working.

“He’s meticulous, absolutely meticulous. He has to be involved with every step of the process,” said Hannah von Dorfmeister-Schnitzel, who spoke to me about Aldrich over the telephone from St. Barts. Dorfmeister-Schnitzel owns Alma Mahler, a four-year-old Maltese, and has commissioned two doghouses from Aldrich. “When we were talking about building Alma’s little seaside maisonette outside Nice, we had so many doubts. I remember thinking, ‘What if Alma trips on the seawall? She’s a dreadful swimmer!’ But Eamon was marvelous. He was with us the whole way, spending time with Alma, eating with her, grooming with her. By the time he showed us the design we had full confidence in him. I know Alma did, too. At least, I think so.”

When I asked Aldrich about the intensity of this approach, about the hours he spends with each dog before even beginning preliminary sketches, he said it was simply the only course he knew. “There was a point in my career when I stumbled,” he told me. “I was thinking about doghouse design conceptually rather than in terms of the dogs themselves, and it was a mistake. A doghouse architect who spends more time inventing theories than he spends with the clients, watching them sleep, listening to them bark, is misguided. It shows in the work, too. The only way I know to design a successful doghouse is by first forging a connection with the dog who will inhabit it.”

Back to the sizzling Palm Springs morning. Aldrich and I are headed to a meeting with a middle-aged Samoyed and his owner, a pincushion magnate who wants a desert doghouse built in the looming San Jacinto Mountains. The previous evening Aldrich had gone alone into the mountains to inspect the site. “The terrain is difficult,” he tells me, as we walk to the kingpincushion’s haberdashery. “There’s a substantial gradient and no shade whatsoever. During the day, the sun will be constant. And Samoyeds are from Siberia, you know.”

Aldrich introduces himself to the girl working the haberdashery’s counter, and within seconds the Samoyed’s owner is standing before us, beaming. We take seats on a custard-colored canapé, and after introductions our host, name: Chip Guerrero, explains his vision for the doghouse-to-be. Modern, he says, but not so modern; in harmony with the local aesthetic, certainly, but also distinct. Aldrich listens and nods, but after several minutes interrupts to ask when we might meet the Samoyed himself. “Oh, Gianni’s at the salon,” Guerrero says. “But don’t worry—I know what he wants.”

AS A CHILD IN BRAZIL, Aldrich had rigged up rudimentary bird feeders, and climbing apparatuses for the marmosets, but he’d never built an animal’s home. When he undertook to build Pelé’s doghouse, he was starting from scratch.

His first step was to forget everything he’d seen on his depressing doghouse shopping trip—all those standardized, mass-produced cabins—and to begin from an absolute ignorance. Only then, with adolescent mind unclouded, could he consider how a doghouse should function, what it should be.

Aldrich pored over library books about architectural form and animal behavior and fused what he read with the knowledge he’d gained from those 127 species in the South American jungle. Gradually, his ideas took shape. “I remember asking myself, ‘What are the fundamental conditions that make for a comfortable home?’ And then, ‘What are the fundamental conditions that make for a comfortable dog?’” Aldrich told me. “Then I tried to mash the two together.”

The result was Villa Canidae, a rectangular doghouse that took up nearly all of the Aldriches’ backyard. The structure’s entranceway opened directly into a grand, enclosed atrium with soaring ceilings, a place for Pelé to nap or entertain or receive local bitches. To the left of the atrium was a dining area for Pelé’s bowl, and to the right a private space, where he could lick himself. Moving through the atrium one entered a colonnaded vestibule surrounding a garden exploding with English country flowers: cowslips, honeysuckles, and poppies. A portion of the garden remained unplanted, however, and reserved for bone-burying. And in the doghouse’s rear corner was a sizable space for sleeping, covered over to protect from the pervasive London drizzle.

Villa Canidae was noticed. Aldrich’s neighbors, patient parties to weeks of hammering and sawing, were impressed by the finished doghouse, and a few even offered to pay him to design homes for their own dogs. One neighbor was a reporter for the London Times. She wrote a short item about Villa Canidae that came to the attention of the renowned architect Jørgen Dørgen. Dørgen is now retired and spends most of the year in Svalbard, but in those days he was based in a building just off Leicester Square. “I read the piece and sensed a real talent, something incredibly rare,” Dørgen told me. “I remember dropping the newspaper and yelling to my assistant, ‘Get this boy’s parents on the line immediately!’”

And so, after some negotiation with the local secondary school, Aldrich began spending two days each week at the offices of Dørgen, Pyknyk & Wackamole, learning the fundamentals of architecture. He worked most directly with the firm’s associates but also sometimes with Dørgen himself. “Mr. Dørgen would give me heaps of books and assign me all this reading, and he’d get cross if I hadn’t finished everything in a few days,” Aldrich recalled. “Finally I told him, ‘Look, I have chemistry homework, too!’” He chuckled. “Those were wonderful times, though. The office was so dynamic. We were building revolutionary structures that nobody thought possible.”

One of those revolutionary structures is the Oliver Museum of Art, the first Dørgen project that Aldrich led. The museum’s namesake, Phillip Oliver, was an eccentric viscount who lived alone in a ramshackle Kensington mansion and who had, over the decades and for reasons unclear, assembled in his house a vast, sprawling, model-train town. The town was called Dustbunny upon Sink Leak, and it had come to fill the residence’s entire second floor. Yet sprawling though it was, Dustbunny upon Sink Leak had no cultural venues. As Aldrich explained it to me: “Oliver’s model-train city had little factories and petrol stations and bespoke tailors and a curry house that supposedly served the best rogan josh for miles, but it had no place for the imaginary citizens to go for enlightened pleasure.”

Oliver decided that what Dustbunny upon Sink Leak needed was a miniature museum, a versatile building that, while housing the usual exhibits of marbles and postage stamps, would also include multi-functional spaces in which to hold, say, cricket concerts, or Mexican jumping bean dance performances. This wasn’t to be a straightforward, neoclassical structure, either. Oliver wanted a unique and striking place in which to experience art, and one that would help revive Dustbunny upon Sink Leak’s decaying industrial district, which the viscount believed to be rife with tiny crime. More than anything, though, Oliver wanted a pint-sized museum that would put his model-train town on the cultural map.

To meet these expectations, Aldrich decided the building had to have an iconic exterior, one that would fit with the grittier surroundings—with the little warehouses and bridges, the river Sink Leak, and, of course, the model-train tracks—but also set itself apart from them. How Aldrich came to shape this exterior from metallic curves, swoops of movement, the eruption of swirling organic form, even he cannot say. “It was just there in my mind,” he told me. “Lots of metal swirls. And then: more. More metal swirls.” Whatever its genesis, the design works beautifully. The titanium cladding matches the roughness of the industrial neighborhood while also elevating it. The Oliver Museum of Art opened to unanimous critical admiration.

Aldrich’s prominence and responsibilities at Dørgen, Pyknyk & Wackamole subsequently grew, and he was immediately put in charge of another major project, designing skyscrapers for an urban snow globe. But he was restless: he wanted to build doghouses, and at Dørgen’s major commercial firm, single-family doghouses just didn’t have a place in the portfolio. So Aldrich, not yet 20, decided to leave his mentor and set out on his own.

DAY IN PALM SPRINGS had turned to dusk, and the patio at the Frond Hotel & Swim Club was filling with tan people in lightweight, light-colored clothes. Aldrich sat at a table facing the pool, sipping a daikon-dirt juice and waiting on Gianni, the Samoyed, who was late.

At our morning meeting at the haberdashery it had become clear that Gianni’s owner, Chip Guerrero, was disinclined to include his dog in the process of designing his dog’s doghouse. Aldrich had eventually overcome this resistance, though Guerrero wasn’t convinced. “Gianni can be difficult, you’ll see,” he’d said after arranging for Aldrich and me to meet the Samoyed for drinks at the Frond at seven that evening, and it is 7:49 when Gianni arrives, trotting showily through the patio and trailed by a striking young woman in a turquoise kaftan who introduces herself as Luna, the dog’s assistant.

Luna sits across from Aldrich, and Gianni, freshly groomed, hops into the chair next to her. A server appears bearing Champagne flute and punch bowl, filled with fizzy drink. “Of course they know us here,” Luna explains, sipping from the flute. Gianni laps energetically from the bowl. Aldrich introduces himself to Gianni, but Gianni is not interested in Aldrich’s self, keeps lapping from the bowl, doesn’t bother to look up; bowl is focus. Now Gianni has drunk nearly half the bowl’s contents, probably is also drunk, and starts to bark; Luna quickly produces a rhinestone-encased iPhone, on which Gianni begins nose-swiping through photos of other dogs. He’s going through the motions, though, Gianni, not even glancing at the pictures, and within seconds he bores of this game and launches himself from the chair to a nearby landscaped patch of desert willow, where he alternates between chasing his tail and frantically burrowing in the sand. Tanned people in lightweight, light-colored clothes starting to stare. Luna’s head in hands. Has all happened so fast.

Here is where most people would call for the check, but if Aldrich was annoyed he showed no sign of it and continued to sit patiently, drinking his juice and asking Luna polite questions about where she’d grown up and how she found Palm Springs and whether there were many municipal dog parks in town. A sozzled Samoyed won’t worry Aldrich. He has worked with difficult clients before.

Perhaps most difficult was his first client after leaving Dørgen, a chow chow named Scheherazade. Scheherazade was a show dog who’d placed second at Eukanuba and third, on two separate occasions, at Westminster. She was also famously testy and hard to please, and when Aldrich met her had just received a six-month ban from the American Kennel Club for biting a delousing intern on the earlobe. Post-intern-earlobe-chomp Scheherazade’s owner, Sheikh Halim bin Nazim bin Ibrahim al-Smith, believing his show dog overextended, had asked Aldrich to design for her a country doghouse, a place where she could relax and regroup between competitions.

Aldrich was at the time newly decamped from Dørgen, Pyknyk & Wackamole and devoting his days to expanding and organizing the many ideas about doghouse architecture he’d been turning over in his mind the past several years. After months of this intense, isolated work he found he’d written a book-length manifesto, and he decided to have it published.

Vers une Architecture de Chien, written in French for the hell of it, delineated Aldrich’s four core principles—what became known as his “Four Legs” of doghouse architecture. Unlike its author, the text is brash and fiery. One can see it as a fierce and uncompromising response to the doghouses Aldrich had witnessed on his woeful shopping trip years before. Those doghouses had trumpeted their ornamentation; in Vers une Architecture de Chien, Aldrich decreed ornamentation verboten. The old-style doghouses sat on the ground and had windowless walls supporting pitched roofs, whereas Aldrich’s “doghouse of the future” would have ribbon windows and a flat roof, and it would hover over the ground atop thin pillars he called “perrotis” (again, seemingly for the hell of it).

Vers une Architecture de Chien had just been released when Aldrich started work on Scheherazade’s commission, and the country doghouse he ultimately designed for her was in line with the doghouse architectural theories he’d advanced in his book. Design approval from Scheherazade did not come easily, though: it required no less than 27 tense meetings between her and Aldrich, at several of which the chow chow had literally torn up and shat upon the proposed plans. But at the 27th meeting the mood changed, and Scheherazade fell in love with the final drawings. Reportedly, she couldn’t stop licking them.

When it was built, Scheherazade’s country doghouse, the Villa Chewtoye, stunned the doghouse architectural world. Nothing like it had been done before. It was a bright white concrete and steel rectangle that hovered above the ground on its perrotis, a sort of floating, clean, cubistic machine. Ornamentation and moldings were gone, replaced by right angles, horizontal windows, and a flat roof—a flat roof that was, it turned out, no match for the round rain. The roof leaked, and the problem quickly became serious. Within days of the Villa Chewtoye’s completion Aldrich was receiving notes from the sheikh, complaining that several of Scheherazade’s finest leather dog collars, dog muzzles, ankle cuffs, and whips had been ruined by water and that the doghouse had already grown moldy and dank. Scheherazade developed a respiratory infection that sent her to an Alpine sanitarium for several months; she would never again compete in a dog show, on account of her wheezing and newly exposed penchant for BDSM. Just weeks after the Villa Chewtoye was finished, it sat abandoned.

Aldrich wouldn’t speak to me about the Villa Chewtoye, or about his relationship with Scheherazade, who died several years ago in a tragic incident involving a leash, an Elizabethan collar, and too much K-9 Jelly. But it’s clear the situation still bothers him now, a decade later. During our talks, Aldrich frequently brought up a time in his career when he became “lost” or “adrift,” prioritizing theory and personal legacy over the considerations of individual dogs. He always spoke of this chapter as a regrettable part of his professional maturation. And while he has never explicitly disavowed the Villa Chewtoye, or Vers une Architecture de Chien, the repudiation is evident merely by glancing through photographs of Aldrich + Rover’s finished doghouses, most of which violate the “Four Legs” repeatedly and joyfully.

Still, out of the difficult circumstances surrounding construction of the Villa Chewtoye grew one of the most important relationships of Aldrich’s young career, that with the Bavarian bratwurst industrialist Gunther Gunkel, or “Gunk,” to friends. Gunkel is a tall, fat man and doghouse architecture enthusiast who visited the Villa Chewtoye shortly after it was built and was floored by it. “When I saw that doghouse I knew it was the work of a wunderkind,” Gunkel told me. He was in New York for a few days on business, and I’d joined him in his suite at The Four Seasons for a light breakfast of wiener schnitzel and hefeweizen. “All the sturm und drang, because of a glitch! The Villa Chewtoye is a masterpiece, and some dummkopf dog has angst over a little roof Rhine?” A clipboard-wielding assistant was hovering, and Gunkel paused to approve several purchases for the sausagefest he would be hosting that evening. “The worst part was the schadenfreude,” he continued. “Doghouse architects without a tenth of Eamon’s talent, relishing his difficulties. But that’s the zeitgeist. Doghouse architecture is just politics by other means.”

Over the past eight years, Aldrich has designed seven doghouses for Gunkel’s schnauzer, Fritz. Three were eventually built, most recently Bauwauhaus outside Munich. Bauwauhaus is unique in that it’s made almost completely of glass, was assembled from off-the-shelf, prefabricated components, and is partially cantilevered over a waterfall. “When one first sees Bauwauhaus, one might think, ‘Hmm, there’s a lot happening here.’” Gunkel said. “But then you look a second time, and a third, and in my case a fourth, and you watch Fritz repeatedly running himself into the glass walls, and you talk to Eamon about it, and then Fritz starts to wear a padded helmet and your perspective starts to change. You see the doghouse in an entirely different way. It becomes beautiful and moving, and also less hazardous for Fritz.”

I asked Aldrich about his relationship with bratwurst tycoon and Schnauzer. “Gunk and Fritz are so important to me,” he said. “When I started working with Fritz is when I began to understand: this isn’t about ideology. It’s about giving clients what they want, what they may not even know they want. Fritz and I would spend hours together, scratching ourselves and playing Wagner on the stereo and trying, as best we could, to communicate. That’s how I learned to really listen.” Aldrich stopped speaking for a moment and looked away. “Have you heard that song by those Jamaican fellows, the song where they’re asking who it was who let the dogs out? You know the one. The tune is often dismissed because people take it literally, as if all these dogs are running wild through the streets. But if you think about the message, it’s really quite brilliant, almost catechismal. We’re being asked, ‘Who among us has the courage, the will, to let out our inner dogs?’ I think there’s something profound in that.”

ALDRICH STOOD BEFORE Gianni Desert Doghouse. The three-foot-tall structure was nearly complete. All that remained to do was to plant portions of the rooftop terrace and fill the pool. It is a beautiful doghouse, in harmony with its environment and redolent of Southern California glamour at once. Eyeing the expansive pool deck and surrounding clumps of tended desert flora, I sensed that the Frond Hotel & Swim Club might soon be losing one of its more loyal patrons.

Aldrich and I had driven here in the late afternoon, to this site high above Palm Springs. Far removed from other homes, the location was quiet and peaceful. “It won’t make any history,” Aldrich said, breaking the silence. “But that’s all right. If Gianni’s happy with this doghouse, then I’m happy.” After their first meeting, at the Frond, subsequent rendezvous between architect and Samoyed had occurred at Guerrero’s haberdashery, in more businesslike settings. These turned out to be remarkably productive gatherings, and Aldrich drew up final plans for Gianni Desert Doghouse after just three visits.

Now it was October. The summer had been eventful for Aldrich. In August, he’d won the Whitzker Prize, doghouse architecture’s supreme award. The honor was unexpected; before Aldrich the youngest-ever winner had been Claudette au Poivre, the famed “Priestess of the Turret,” who’d collected her prize at age 52. When I asked Aldrich what the Whitzker meant to him, whether beyond its prestige it somehow substantiated or elevated his work, he claimed not to know, that he hadn’t had the time since winning even to pause and consider it. I believe him.

Also during the summer Aldrich had been approached by the mayor of Naples, Italy, about rejuvenating a large public doghousing complex there, Le Code di Scampia, which was built in the early 1970s as an affordable home for abandoned, disabled, and retired service dogs but had since fallen into disrepair. Aldrich + Rover has never designed anything but single-family doghouses, so the Le Code di Scampia project is new territory, but Aldrich is avid for the challenge. “Beautiful doghouses ought not be reserved for the world’s Lassies and Benjis and Air Buds,” he told me. “Each day, service dogs do incredible work, helping people to cross the road, or get their mail, or make a soufflé. These dogs serve us with honor and dignity, and surely they deserve the same in return.” Bigger projects require more doghouse architects, of course, and Aldrich + Rover has plans to increase its staff by a third over the coming months.

Aldrich is widening the scope of his own projects, too. He’s begun designing pieces for doghouse interiors, to be produced by the Danish furniture company moD; several, including the hotly anticipated Bedste Ven bowl, will be available this winter. He is also attempting to jettison his well-earned reputation as shy and retiring. He made a big splash by appearing in the September issue of Chic, in a photo spread shot at the San Diego Zoo, wearing “animal-inspired, fur-less looks for fall,” such as a hyena-print pea coat and a cappello romano meant to evoke “the contours and charisma of the hammerhead shark.” The spread was headlined: “Doghouse Architect, Unleashed.”

Much about Aldrich’s world is changing, in varied ways but with at least one common consequence: he can no longer be considered a celebrity doghouse architect. He is now a full-on celebrity. He perceives the difference, and he is obviously conflicted about it. He knows that exposure comes with its benefits and its costs. What he does not yet know is what those benefits and costs will be, or what they will eventually mean for him and his work.

But for now, at least, there are still the individual doghouses, and the individual dogs. Having finished our survey of Gianni’s fine new home, Aldrich and I start to make our way back down the mountain. After a few steps, though, he stops, and turns to face the doghouse once more. Craggy peaks rise up behind it, and the sun is dipping behind those peaks now, turning the whole scene a hazy orange. Gianni Desert Doghouse is overtaken by shadow, and gradually it becomes imperceptible. Aldrich looks for a few moments more. Then he turns again, and walks down the mountain.