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Charles Gwathmey

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Architect Charles Gwathmey’s postmodern Amagansett masterpiece 130 Bluff Road is on the market now. That house’s $5,000,000 price tag may sound steep, but for this architect, it’s a steal. Gwathmey was one of the greats, as this article from the April 1977 issue of AVENUE proves…

Traditionally, architecture has had only rather perfunctory, even tenuous relations with interior design. In the past, architects tended to conceive of themselves in more heroic terms, as imposers of form on the receptive landscape, as sources immutable dialogues between structure and environment. But times – and economic conditions—have changed. With the lack of large-scale commissions, architects are turning to the less glamorous but more intimate problems of reworking existing spaces.

Charles Gwathmey is a New York architect whose early reputation was founded on a series of sober and elegant houses – many of them in the chic reaches of the Hamptons – and a number of thoughtful solutions in the field of institutional buildings, including the fine restoration of Whig Hall at Princeton University. More recently, however, Gwathmey and his partner, Robert Siegel, have been responsible for some of the more brilliant and pristine examples of interior design in New York City. From the suave elegance of Vidal Sassoon’s new salon at the base of charms of the Shezan Restaurant on Fifty-eighth Street across from the Plaza Hotel, to a number of private East Side apartments, the odds on walking into a Gwathmey/Siegel interior seem to rising all the time.

Sleek, cool white rooms with grey industrial carpet or quarry tiles in a warm red; mirrored walls and ceilings; a few severely vertical plants, their limbs outlined against monochromatic backgrounds. All these are elements of Gwathmey’s vision. It’s a cool, modulated world, without extraneous details. But its ultimate effect depends on perfection of execution. A Gwathmey interior doesn’t admit to sloppiness; rather It suggests people who know who to dress in style, how to sit in a designer chair, and above all, how to choose the best fabrics, the right tables, even the perfect cookware. And the pleasures of living, working or dining in one of the partnership’s designs are powerful enough to have turned some of the East Side’s most discriminating sensibilities into admirers or potential clients.

Gwathmey is as clear and direct as his interiors. Even his clothes–often a grey sweater and dark slacks worn with a discreet white shirt–suggest the restraint of the spaces he designs. He has an authoritative personality, and yet there is nothing oppressive about his manner. Instead, there is an eagerness to explicate, to make everything about his work absolutely understandable. In art as well as architecture, “the new minimalism is frequently surrounded by a great deal of very dense verbiage. Not so with Gwathmey. Neither does he attempt to align his work with any particular school of thought. “I am considered one of ‘The New York Five,’” he admits. “We’re supposed to have a number of traits in common as architects. Well, I believe that an artist never categorizes himself as part of a movement. I’ll leave that to the scholars.”

Ironically, like so many of the country’s leading architects, Gwathmey chooses to operate out of a particular eccentric nineteenth-century edifice, the rambling Carnegie Hall Studios building on West Fifty-seventh Street. And like so many of his peers, too, Gwathmey has to deal with existing, usually unimaginative forms in creating a new interior. But it’s not frustrating at all, he claims. “On the contrary,” Gwathmey says, “I find it stimulating to have to confront ‘givens’ that are very defined physically. It allows me the opportunity to re-evaluate my role as an architect. All limitations are potentially invigorating. The challenge becomes the transcending or exploding of boundaries,” he says.

“Perhaps the most exciting discovery I have made is that elements such as cabinetwork can serve as secondary building systems. Interiors are often about the illusion of space, so we had to arrive at devices that would express architectural concepts in miniature. In this context, a chair is a building, do you see? Most New York spaces are fairly rigid in the final analysis. After all, you have to contend with a steel frame that never varies in dimensions and ceiling heights that are usually lowering, especially in new buildings.”

Materials can be one way of cementing illusion, and Gwathmey has a particular fondness for hardness, reflectiveness and translucence. Mirrors, for instance, play a critical role in many of his commercial interiors. “I feel that much of my work as a composite meaning anyway, and the use of reflective surfaces has at least two meanings for me. Most important is the fact that they serve to expand and deepen space – they tend to soften rather than harden a perspective. When I use them in a hairdressing salon, they also serve a highly functional purpose and symbolically represent the deification of the individual and the narcissistic element of the beauty industry.”

Gwathmey is wary, however, of too obvious a link between meaning and material. He invests no great historical or social significance in his use of such an evocative hallmark of the thirties as glass-block walls. Yet this is a recurring motif of the partnership’s recent interiors; they appear on the exterior wall of Pearl’s Restaurant on West Forty-eighth Street, in an undulating form in a recent Manhattan apartment, and in a law office. “The references you bring to glass might be campy, and relate to the thirties or an Art Deco device for expressing a fake modernity,” Gwathmey says, “but that’s your frame of reference. My use of materials is always unambiguous and refers only to what is visible. To me, the use of glass blocks implies openness, and while at the same time enclosing space, it implies something beyond. Adjacent light modifies it; it varies by day and by night. In short, the connotations are needless, but they all have to do with visible phenomena. My work is not decorative.”

Gwathmey is careful to disassociate his work from anything, in fact, which resembles interior decoration in the traditional sense. “Perceptually, what we’re doing is subtracting, not adding. When we do a house, the attitude is that the client is a partner in a process of exploration. We’re not hired to pick the bedcovers. Rather, we deal initially with simple needs. How many children are there? What sort of the life do the clients want? And we go on from there.

“Because our work is rather intellectual we’ve often been told that we’re architects who don’t deal with their clients. Nothing could be further from the truth. What we don’t do is create spaces that are simply catalogues of consumer objects. Our work is often educational to our clients. Often they’re not prepared for the confrontation of changing their habits, but I think they come to us in the first place because they want something more than an immediate and stylish experience. They know that work that isn’t rigorous has no universality and becomes boring after the original texture has been appreciated.”

Refinement and elimination are what Gwathmey/Siegel’s work is about. “Let me give you an example,” Gwathmey says. “Historically, moldings have been used to cover up a detail, the meeting of two places. A piece added to obscure two other pieces. What I’m interested in doing is revealing that moment of intersection, when a wall meets a ceiling, say. It’s the intensity of that experience that I’m seeking. Our work is about perception, then. It has to do with what it implies rather than what it is – an ambiguity in spite of clarity.”

A close study of any Gwathmey/Siegel floor plan will quickly reveal a preoccupation with circulation. In certain instances, such as at Pearl’s, the whole thrust of the design seems to lie in the provision for swift, clear movement. “I’m most interested in the spaces in between,” admits Gwathmey. The corridors between rooms, the process of layering that’s involved in constructing space is fascinating to me. It’s what isn’t defined that has most resonance.”

And yet to enter any of the partnership’s interiors is to experience a smooth visual and tactile sequence whose underlying complexity is belied by a seemingly calm and almost bland surface. Pearl’s, so complex on paper, seems to be nothing more than a harmonious tube of space that is at once completely alien to, and yet absolutely in harmony with the midtown office building into which it seems to have been so casually inserted. However, the spectator is always made aware of the difficulty of transforming banality into an architectural event.

As Gwathmey observes, the interiors and exteriors of a building used to be conceived together. It wasn’t until the late nineteenth century, with the rise of the great modern commercial and industrial buildings and high-rise apartments, that space was produced on a scale so vast as to preclude any attempt at differentiation. Now New York and many other American cities are entering a new era, in which the conservation and adaptation of existing structures is becoming increasingly important. Inevitably, architects such as Gwathmey/Siegel will become involved in this process of reclaiming huge areas by good design.

“The architect isn’t there to tell you what space means,” says Gwathmey thoughtfully. “Rather he provides basic organizational principles, he deals with incredibly simple things – light, air, circulation. It’s only the vocabulary of living. The language is provided by the inhabitants, their daily habits, the way they use their environment. I suppose you might say that my attitude towards design is more Jesuit than Anglican,” Gwathmey says wryly. What is evident is that his work is an extraordinary richness, based on an economy of means. And in this paradox lies one of the clearer design lessons of recent years.


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