Meier's Milestone Moment
Set on the craggy coast of Long Island Sound in Darien, Connecticut, Richard Meier’s Smith House is a Modernist lighthouse of transparent geometry. Critic Kenneth Frampton called it "a panoramic belvedere overlooking the rocky shoreline," a work of "neopurist" architecture that harked back to the best of Le Corbusier. One of Meier’s first major residential projects, the house also represented a turning point in his career.
When he won the commission for it in 1965, the 31-year-old Meier had been running his own firm for two years after apprenticing in the studio of Marcel Breuer. "The Smith House was a seminal project for me," Meier acknowledges today. "It allowed me to articulate some ideas I was starting to pursue, such as the balance between public and private space."
Designed as a weekend retreat for New Yorkers Carole and Fred I. Smith and their two young sons, the house capitalizes on its dramatic 1.5-acre site. Beyond a dense cluster of evergreens, the land clears and rises to the center of the site, then drops sharply to the rugged shoreline and a small, sandy cove. The spatial organization of the house hinges on the programmatic separation between public and private areas. From the front walkway, visitors approach a mostly opaque white wood facade before crossing a ramp and entering on the house’s second level to discover what Meier calls a "180-degree explosion" of light and space. The living room, dining area, and study embrace the waterfront views, pinwheeling in a three-level enclosure of glass on three sides. The family’s private quarters, meanwhile, are stacked to hug the street-facing facade of the 2,800-square-foot building.
Elements that would become Meier signatures are present as well: the pristine white exterior, expanses of plate glass framed by finely proportioned piers and mullions, and minimal interiors creating intersecting volumes. When the Smith House was published as the cover story of Record Houses in May 1968, the editors noted that "design impact is produced by the simplest means, with no frills and a remarkable absence of most current architectural clichés."
Soon after the house was completed, the Smiths divorced. When Carole later married Herrick Littlefield, the family decided to make Darien their full-time residence, and Meier was enlisted to expand the house. Completed in 1973, the 300-square-foot addition enlarged the master suite and added closets and support spaces. Today, the Littlefields again enjoy the house as a weekend place, "where the play of light is incredible year-round," Carole says.
"I believe the success of the house lies in the capacity to absorb and enter into a dialogue with the temporal phenomena of light and context," Meier concurs. "They are, in the end, its material."