Perry Winston’s Thanksgiving dinner special was a satirical political aphorism artfully spelled out in mini marshmallows on a bed of mashed sweet potatoes. Whether it was a construction detail or the state of the world, Perry was committed to getting it right.
I met Perry Winston in 1984 when he was living in San Francisco, shortly after his son, Ali, was born, and I was teaching with his wife, Zeynep Çelik. From then on, our lives were intertwined personally and professionally. Perry was working for Mission Housing, an activist housing and community development organization centered in the (pre-gentrification) Mission District of San Francisco, a neighborhood largely populated by Latinos. A perfect fit for Perry’s sensibilities, skills, and Spanish fluency.
Before moving to San Francisco in 1979, Perry lived in Houston where he received his M.Arch from Rice University and met Zeynep. He grew up primarily in Baltimore, and graduated from Harvard in 1967. He spent four years in the Peace Corps in Guarenas, Venezuela, working with the city engineer on infrastructure and building projects, and on an adult literacy program with a squatter community.
Mission Housing was a great fit, but after seven years of housing-rehab work that produced 350 units of housing, Perry moved to New York where Zeynep had a teaching appointment. While I had the impression that Perry was moving with some reluctance, there was never a single complaint from him. Not his style—ever. Never reticent to speak, Perry was the one with the incisive comment that silenced excessive chatter. Perry went to work with Levenson Meltzer Neuringer, one of the few architects focused on low-income housing. He and Zeynep gathered interesting people around their dinner table, where spirited debates flowed along with wine and delicious food. Always the provocateur, Perry brought a wealth of detail—historical, political, architectural—to every conversation.
From 1990 until 2007, Perry was the Architectural Director at PICCED (now Pratt Center for Community Development), the nonprofit architecture, planning, and community design center based at Pratt University. For 17 years, Perry made friends and admirers, and built housing, community centers, educational facilities, parks, and an early green roof. He was a cofounder of and technical advisor to the East New York Farms, long before urban agriculture was on anyone else’s lips. Every one of us who worked with him has a recollection of his tenacity, integrity, and ethical compass: salvaging beams in a renovation project; raising funds to preserve windows with historic merit; holding the ENYF! Planning Group together until the Farms were self-sufficient; making sure contractors were getting construction work on equal terms; doing the work—whatever it was—to make sure each project was the best that it could be. Ana Aguirre of United Community Centers, described him this way: “I knew Perry for many years, when we were part of East New York Planning Steering Committee. He was so dedicated that he even took care of writing the minutes of every single meeting. He was a man with such integrity. He was humble, with profound social consciousness. A great man.”
At the time of his death, Perry was working in the architectural practice of Magnusson Architecture and Planning (MAP), bringing a much-appreciated wealth of experience to the firm’s housing work. He was the “senior statesman” with many projects and hundreds of building details behind him. His longtime construction management collaborator at Pratt, Bill Riley, recalled, “Perry and I were a great team and we had a lot of fun. He was a practical architect, a stickler for details—everything he designed could be built. Together we saw a lot of change. When we started one project on a block in Brooklyn, we saw dealers and drugs; two years later it was kids and playgrounds.” His skills and intentions were a powerful combination.
Perry won awards for his architectural work from preservation organizations, Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR), and other organizations. And he was accomplished in many other ways. His documentary film, Bordersville, about a Houston neighborhood’s efforts to get running water and survive suburban sprawl also won awards, including a Special Gold Award at the Houston International Film Festival. Perry was a serious scholar, an excellent writer, and a natural teacher. He wrote for journals, taught design and professional practice at Pratt and The New School, took students abroad and into neighborhoods of New York. In his writing, there will remain some of the best examples of the humor that he exhibited as seriously as his scholarship. His annual New Year’s letters were a pithy commentary on the previous year’s political doings, riddled with facts and as tightly woven as a jigsaw puzzle. In each one-page letter, Perry Winston had you rethinking everything you thought you knew about the closing year. Thank you, Perry, you made me think.