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Newsmaker: Richard Meier

By Suzanne Stephens
August 20, 2013
Photo © Richard Meier and Partners
Meier (standing) at Westbeth, a nonprofit affordable housing complex for artists in New York's West Village, in 1970. Also shown in photo: Barbara Littenberg; Gerry Gurland (in front of Meier); and Tod Williams (behind Gurland).

This October Richard Meier celebrates the 50th anniversary of establishing his own office in New York City. Over the years, Meier has witnessed significant changes in architectural practice—including his own. It has become more global in a world where he and other "design"-oriented architects are now able to attract a gamut of large-scale commissions. Richard Meier & Partners currently has major projects going up in Taiwan, Italy, Germany, Turkey, and Brazil, to mention some.

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Through the past decades, architectural styles have changed as well, veering from Modernism to Postmodernism, neo-Expressionism, and even neo-Modern. But Meier hasn’t swerved. He has been a Steady Eddie of modernism since he opened his one-man office in 1963. Now Meier, a Pritzker-prize winner, maintains a 60-person office in Manhattan plus a 40-person office in Los Angeles. During this time, Meier also stayed true to creating Architecture with a capital A. Record recently asked him about his impressive sense of resolution.

After getting your architecture degree from Cornell University in 1958, you did stints at Davis, Brody & Wisniewski, Skidmore Owings & Merrill (SOM), and Marcel Breuer & Associates before going out on your own in 1963. Why did you make those choices?

These were three different architects and it was a good way to learn various ways of practicing. At that time Davis, Brody & Wisniewski was very small, and SOM was a large, full-service firm with Gordon Bunshaft as its lead designer. Bunshaft told me that architects could only practice with a full-service firm, but I said, “That’s not way I want to practice.” So I went off to Breuer’s office, which was smaller than SOM and larger than Davis, Brody, but where everyone did everything. Today there are many different ways to practice. My way is one way.

When you opened your first office it was in your own apartment at 91st Street and Park Avenue, right?

I did that for a year–solo—then moved to a former townhouse on East 53rd Street between Park and Madison avenues [long since demolished]. By then the office had grown to maybe four people but we all sat around one table.

Your early work was residential with some houses, such as the Lambert House on Fire Island (1962), built with wood. It was the majestically modern and unremittingly white Smith House (1965-67), in Darien, Connecticut, that really launched your career in the media. What about clients?

Because of the Smith House, and then Westbeth Artists Housing [a renovation of the former Bell Laboratories in New York City, 1970], I got a call from Ed Logue [then CEO of the New York State Urban Development Corporation] who said, “We’re doing some public housing in Bronx, Twin Parks [1969-1974].” They were looking for young talented designers.

You have stuck with the Modernist vocabulary, unlike some of your colleagues.

It never occurred to me to do anything else. Modernism suits our time: architecture is about making space. We’re not making Baroque or Renaissance space, but modern space with linear, planar, abstracted forms and with opaque and transparent surfaces.

You’ve adamantly stayed with your predilection for the color white—inside and out. Why?

The way white reflects and refracts light makes color around us more vivid. It helps us appreciate changing tones and hues in nature.

Your affinity with Le Corbusier’s architecture is well known. Now his first retrospective in the U.S., Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes, is at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (until September 23). Will this help his legacy?

Architects of my generation grew up with Le Corbusier, but I don’t really know if young architects are as enamored of or interested in him as we were. This exhibition should open the younger generation’s eyes to his work. There is no question that his manipulation of light and space has always been important to me.

You said a while ago, “Architecture is a lousy business.” But you’ve made it work, expanding your firm into a large, global practice. All the while you have maintained your own high ideals in the service of architecture.

Well, if you want to go into business, architecture should not be your first choice. You have to want to do architecture. But we do have a comptroller in each of the offices to run the business side. Also, I have three associate partners in New York and one partner, Michael Palladino, in the L.A. office.

So how did you bring design and business together successfully? What’s the secret?

I wish I knew. But we’ve managed to stay in business.

You are called Managing Partner. That suggests a business role.

I am? Where does it say that?

On your website.

Oh. I wonder how that happened.

How do you keep creativity alive?

I still sketch out concepts before doing anything. The people in office often want to put a single line on the screen and go with it. But I say, “Let’s think it through.” We use lots of tracing paper before going to the computer. Once it’s on the computer, I walk around and say, “What’s that?” You have to separate image from reality. Also we spend time with the concept. We make tons of study models, which start small and go to about a two-foot height. Even today, with the computer, there is no substitute for models. It’s still a single image on a screen.

Knowing what you know now, would you have changed anything in your approach?

You learn with experience the things that are not worth doing. Most architects think, no matter what, they can make something out of any commission. For example, I don’t do prisons or hospitals, or restoration work. I do know, by now, who I am. And by now at least clients come to us with their eyes open. They don’t expect something we don’t do.

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