Richard Meier

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Good architecture is timeless, as this article from September, 1978 shows.

It is rare that the opening of a room occasions the sort of fanfare one normally associates with the opening of an entire building, and it is rarer still when the room is so small that guests have to file in in groups of twos and threes to see it. But such was the case early this summer at the Guggenheim Museum, as the Aye Simon Reading Room, a space claimed out of an old lounge area, was unveiled.

The room was designed by Richard Meier, and that, of course, explains a great deal of the attention. Meier’s work normally attracts a great deal of notice – his Smith House in Darien, Saltzman House in East Hampton, and Douglas House in Harbor Springs, Michigan, are among the most photographed houses of contemporary architecture – and the curious combination of a Meier space inside a Frank Lloyd Wright building made the Simon Reading Room a more exceptional event still. There are only a handful of non-residential interiors by distinguished architects in New York buildings designed by other architects, and none, of course, by anyone else inside a Frank Lloyd Wright building. So the art and architecture community was understandably eager to see what Meier would come up with.

The room is off the museum’s exhibition ramp, and it is the leftover space inside the bulge on the outside of the building, the point where the lettering on the façade reads “Museum.” Wright’s plans called for it to be an architectural archive, but it was never put to that or any other purpose until last year when the Esther A. Simon Charitable Trust came up with a generous grant to build and endow a new library of international art periodicals. The museum wanted the room to be worthy of the building architecturally; although museum officials will not say so publicly, they were believed to be wary of the architects of the Taliesin Fellowship, inheritors of Wright’s practice, who completed a rather ponderous addition to the Guggenheim in 1968. So they looked elsewhere, and came up with an architect whose work, superficially at least, bears no resemblance to Frank Lloyd Wright’s at all.

But Richard Meier showed himself to be both sensitive and versatile in the Guggenheim job. He took the room, which is best described as a quarter of an oval, and added immense bookshelves, desks and reading tables, all in natural oak and specially built in curves that play gently off Wright’s great curving well. The furniture is so large that it functions as a set of partitions, dividing the room into functional areas. The entrance to the room is through a keyhole-shaped break in the Guggenheim ramp, which leads to a tiny rounded vestibule of frosted glass.

What Meier was doing at the Guggenheim was playing his own style, which is best described as a set of personal variations on themes introduced by International Style modernists of the 1920s, gently off against Wright’s. He continued Wright’s motifs of curves, yet he never imitated Wright’s forms directly – the shapes and objects in the new room are Meier’s own. He understood that they underlying idea of the Guggenheim was Wright’s interplay of curving spaces against one another, reinforced by natural light, and this is just what Meier was doing in his own way, in the Simon Reading Room.

Meier considered the Guggenheim project a chance to pay a personal homage to Wright, an architect whose work as never influenced him literally but whose buildings have clearly been objects of study for him. He even designed a special set of chairs for the Simon Reading Room, and like the rest of the design, they are not imitation Wright, but Wrightian in spirit – their frames are built in semicircles, a play both on Wright’s architectural forms and on his furniture.  (The Meier chairs, happily, are a lot more comfortable than Wright’s own.)

Meier’s other recent work is, not surprisingly, on a somewhat larger scale than the room at the Guggenheim. Last year his Bronx Developmental Center, an immense, sprawling complex for the mentally retarded, was completed. The building’s sleep, aluminum-paneled exterior drew great praise for its elegance – it was clearly one of the most refined public buildings ever erected in New York – but the structure was criticized as well for its visual coolness, which some said would be troubling to its retarded occupants. Meier responded by asserting that the environment, as he saw it, was restful and therefore benign, and so far there are no definitive answers as to how well the center is working out.

However successful the Bronx Developmental Center may be functionally, there can be no question that, in spirit, it is consistent with Meier’s work. All of it is elegant, all of it is sleek, all of it is put together with a compositional sense that is as good as that of any architect practicing today. It is no accident that Meier makes collages as a hobby – they are an art of composition, and it is in the putting together of objects in exquisite, subtle balance that his work excels.

Richard Meier was born in Newark in 1934. He attended Cornell, and began his professional practice as a staff architect with David, Brody & Wisniewski (now Davis, Brody & Associates) in New York. After stints with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and Marcel Breuer, Meier, in 1963, opened his own office in New York. Most of his early work was residential – white houses that ranged from the highly Corbusian Saltzman House to the far more personal Smith House. Meier’s best-known large-scale work from his first decade of practice was his 1970 renovation of the old Bell Telephone Labs in lower Manhattan into Westbeth artists’ housing.

Meier is now working on a large house in Palm Beach, an apartment in the Hotel Pierre, a school for the famed architecture city of Columbus, Indiana, and a civic center, to be called the Atheneum, for New Harmony, Indiana. But his own apartment, renovated – but never completed, he says – some years ago is as good an illustration of his work as any.

The apartment is in one of the city’s finest buildings, a limestone mass of 1936 by Rosario Candela. Meier chose it not merely because the building was well-located and well-serviced, but well-built – unlike many of the city’s expensive apartment houses, he points out. It is a duplex, and he gutted the lower floor, creating an enormous, sweeping space where the separate living room, dining room, and library had been. The furniture is a combination of Corbusier, Mies and Breuer classics and Meier designs, which include a banquette set into a unit which at its opposite end becomes a gracefully curving desk, a standing bar cabinet that is both sculpture and room divider, and a long dining table set on two chrome cylinders.

It is white; the color is left to come from books, plants, and two superb Frank Stella paintings. In the entrance hall Meier created a new curving staircase with an exposed metal beam, painted black, which flies out of the wall as a perfect sculptural counterpoint to the pure and austere stairwell. There are other such touches throughout – sculpture niches, open vistas, and a set of objects, carefully chosen and even more carefully placed, that reveal Meier’s gifts of composition. It is not, perhaps, the easiest house to come upon if you were not present at its creation, and Kate Gormley Meier, Mrs. Richard Meier since last January, confesses that “I was at first overwhelmed. It is big and elegant, and Richard had himself filled it so well. But I think we now both fill it, and I adore it – I wouldn’t change a thing in the parts that are finished.”

Kate Meier, too, is an architect, and she says that “there are parts of the house that Richard never completely finished that I would love to get my hands on, like the kitchen.”

“I didn’t do this house as seriously as I would have done a house for a client,” Meier says. “It’s like the shoemaker’s children – I let a few things go, but now, with Kate, it will be possible to give everything the energy and thought it needs.”

Kate Meier and her husband are not partners – neither of them thinks it is a good idea for husband and wife architects to work together, so Kate has taken a job on the staff of the firm of Philip Johnson and John Burgee. There she is working on drawings or the controversial America Telephone & Telegraph Company headquarters planned for Madison Avenue – a granite tower with a broken pediment top that is as far away from Meier’s work as anything being designed today.

“Kate’s involvement and love for that project affects me,” Meier says, “and it has made me think carefully about it – I prefer to tell people I won’t comment on my wife’s work. But I do think that the controversy has really helped in terms of increasing people’s awareness of architecture.”

“It’s a wonderful schizophrenia, the different sorts of things we do,” says Kate. “I love to draw and be part of a large firm, and Richard loves to design.”

“Yes,” says Richard Meier. “You might say that Kate does all the big important jobs, and I get all the little ones.”


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