Beginning in the mid-1960s, the New York architect Richard Meier (born 1934) consistently explored the potential of a white, pristine, and spatially rich modern architecture. By the mid-1980s Meier had earned himself a place with the major architects of his day.
Born in Newark, New Jersey, on October 12, 1934, Richard Meier studied architecture at Cornell University, where he graduated in 1957. During a trip to Europe in 1959 he sought to join the office of his early idol, the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier. Although Meier was able to meet Le Corbusier in Paris, the master would not hire Meier, or any other American, at that time, since Le Corbusier believed that several major commissions throughout his career had been lost because of Americans. Meier returned to New York where he worked briefly for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and then for about three years with Marcel Breuer, a product of the German Bauhaus and former partner of Walter Gropius.
Painted Abstract Expressionism at Night
During his early career in New York Meier was an architect by day and Abstract Expressionist painter at night. For a period of time he shared a studio with his close friend Frank Stella. Meier eventually gave up painting to devote himself more fully to architecture, although he continued to work on collages occasionally.
Established Own Firm
In 1963 Meier left Breuer to establish his own practice in New York. From 1963 to 1973 he taught at Cooper Union in New York and was a visiting critic at a number of other institutions. He began to meet with a group called CASE (Conference of Architects for the Study of the Environment), whose discussions of each other's buildings and projects resulted in the 1972 book Five Architects, featuring the work of Peter Eisenman, Michael Graves, Charles Gwathmey, John Hejduk, and Richard Meier. Despite Meier's assertion that this was never a unified group, the "New York Five" were identified with a return to the heroic early period of the European International Style, particularly the buildings of Le Corbusier during the 1920s and 1930s. Some writers attempted to recognize the "white," revitalized modern architecture of the "New York Five" as the opposite pole from the "gray" architecture of such post-modern architects as Robert Venturi, Charles Moore, and Robert A. M. Stern. However, by the early 1980s such a distinction seemed less clear-cut.
Gained Recognition as Architect
Meier first gained attention with his white and immaculate neo-Corbusian villas set in nature, such as his Smith House (1965-1967) at Darien, Connecticut. With its exterior walls of vertical wooden siding, this crisply composed, compact house is a modern New England house, following a genre established earlier by Gropius and Breuer. A central theme of Meier's is seen in the clear separation between the enclosed, private rooms of the entrance front and the much more open main living area at the back, which is here organized into a tall vertical space, glazed on three sides, allowing a panoramic view of Long Island Sound. Meier stated that his "fundamental concerns are space, form, light, and how to make them."
One of Meier's most striking residences is the Douglas House (1971-1973) at Harbor Springs, Michigan. Perched on a steep bluff overlooking Lake Michigan, this tall, vertically organized, white and machine-like villa is dramatically juxtaposed with the unspoiled greenery of its idyllic site. Meier preferred the purity of white, his favorite color, for most of his buildings. White boldly contrasts with nature, yet it constantly responds, through reflection, to surrounding colors and the changing quality of light.
One of Meier's first major non-residential commissions was the Bronx Development Center (1970-1977) in New York for mentally and physically challenged children. Built on an unpromising site of wasteland between a parkway and railroad tracks, Meier chose to turn inward to a spatially rich courtyard. His approach to such an institution was to create "a city in microcosm." This was the first of Meier's buildings to be built with walls of metal panels. The silver tonality of these aluminum panels represented a temporary break for Meier away from his dominant white.
The tour de force of Meier's work of the 1970s was the Atheneum (1975-1979) at New Harmony, Indiana. This visitors' and community center serves a village which was an early 19th-century utopian community, first for George Rapp and his Harmony Society, and later for Robert Owen and his Owenites. The building stands at the entrance to the town on a miniature, Acropolis-like, knoll near the Wabash River. Responding to both the grid of the town and the edge of the river, Meier designed his building on two overlapping grids skewed five degrees from one another. This resulted in an impression of spatial contraction and expansion by means of ramps and stairs in dramatic vertical spaces lit by abundant natural light. Meier reached a new level of complexity in his neo-Corbusian language, which went well beyond the more static and Classical sensibility of Le Corbusier himself. This Baroque manipulation of space and light through complex form was partially inspired by Meier's studies in 1973 as resident architect at the American Academy in Rome, where he was especially intrigued by the Baroque architecture of Italy and southern Germany.
The Atheneum's walls are of porcelain-enameled panels of glistening white which will not weather and age like the temporarily clean walls of the original International Style. Despite the unrelenting modernity of such buildings as this, Meier's vocabulary was, in a sense, historicist. The ocean liner aesthetic of ramps, decks, nautical railings, and scrubbed white surfaces could no longer be associated with the latest in transportation, but only regarded as a nostalgic backward glance to the now grand dinosaurs of ocean travel of the early 20th century. Although the motifs of the International Style architectural revolution are revived, they no longer kindle the spirit of their corollary, a revolution to reform society. What Meier concentrated on was an intensification and enrichment of the forms of modern architecture in search of a moving use of light and space, as seen in such examples as the spiritually uplifting interior spaces of his Hartford Seminary (1978-1981) at Hartford, Connecticut.
Emerged as Major Architect of Museums
By the early 1980s, Meier had emerged as a major architect of museums. His High Museum of Art (1980-1983) in Atlanta, Georgia, contains the drama of a four-story atrium with a ramp ascending back and forth along a quadrant curve. He also built a major addition to the Museum for the Decorative Arts (1979-1984) at Frankfurt am Main, Germany, where the early 19th-century villa of the original museum serves as one quadrant block in Meier's expansion and the source for the dimensions of the additions. For the Des Moines Art Center in Iowa, Meier skillfully appended three small additions (1982-1984) to a 1948 Eliel Saarinen building which had been added to in 1965 by I. M. Pei.
Designed Getty Complex in Los Angeles
In 1984, the year in which Richard Meier turned 50, he received the prestigious Pritzker Prize and was selected to be the architect for a new Getty complex in Los Angeles, which included the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, the Getty Conservation Institute, and a new museum building. By the mid-1980s, it was clear that this exceedingly consistent architect, who had shown that modern architecture is very much alive, had become one of the major architects of his day.
Los Angeles' Getty Center is an immense project and a high point in Meier's career. After ten years of construction, the six-building complex on 110 acres inspires awe in visitors to the site. "The rest of Los Angeles may fall," says Richard Meier in Harper's Bazaar while surveying the site, "but the Getty will stand." The focal point of the complex was designed to be the art museum, containing a collection of paintings, drawings, photographs, decorative arts, and manuscripts from around the world. Other elements include a bookstore, cafes, auditorium, library, and reading room.
Meier chose Italian travertine marble for the project. The tawny colored marble suited the landscape better than his signature white. Meier had the slabs of marble pried apart like giant fork-split English muffins to give the surface of the blocks a rough appearance. It is also admired for its elegant gardens and luxurious views of the mountains and ocean.
Further Reading on Richard Meier
The most complete book on Meier to date is Richard Meier, Richard Meier, Architect, introduction by Joseph Rykwert, postscript by John Hejduk (1984). An earlier book is Richard Meier, Richard Meier, Architect: Buildings and Projects 1966-1976, introduction by Kenneth Frampton, postscript by John Hejduk (1976). The book which established the "New York Five" is Five Architects: Eisenman, Graves, Gwathmey, Hejduk, Meier, introductions by Colin Rowe and Kenneth Frampton (1972). For an interview with Meier, see Barbaralee Diamonste in et al., American Architecture Now (1980). Robert A. M. Stern's New Directions in American Architecture (1977) provides a background to this period. See also Harper's Bazaar November 1995, and Meier, Richard, Richard Meier sculpture, Rizzoli International Publications, 1994.