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.
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. □
MEIER, RICHARD (1934– ), U.S. architect. Meier was born in Newark, n.j. Fifty years later in 1984, he became the youngest winner of the Pritzker architecture prize, one of the most heralded awards for architects. The road to this award and to many important architectural commissions began after Meier graduated from Cornell University in 1957. He worked for the firms of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill and Marcel Breuer before establishing his own firm in 1963.
Meier made his early mark with the designs for private residences, which recall the light and geometric designs of the Bauhaus, especially the form established by Mies van der Rohe as well as the Constructivists. Japanese architecture from the 17th century was also important in formulating Meier's aesthetic. The architect has suggested the strong influence of Le Corbusier in his work. Meier's early important commissions were for the Smith House in Darien, Conn., built between 1965 and 1967, followed by the Douglas House at Harbor Springs, Mich. in 1973, and the Shamberg residence, planned for two people, at Chappaqua, n.y., from 1972 to 1974. He converted the Bell Telephone laboratories in Manhattan to 383 apartments and went on to design the Atheneum in New Harmony, Ind., 1975 to 1979, to much acclaim. In museum design, Meier has created striking designs in the Museum of Decorative Arts in Frankfurt (1981–84), the High Museum of Art in Atlanta (1981), the Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona (1992–95), and the Getty Museum in Los Angeles (1997).
Meier emphasizes white as an essential color in his design, which accentuates the power of the visual form. Meier's buildings are striking, especially against a simple grass landscape, as in the case with the Atheneum, the Des Moines Art Center extension, or the High Museum, where the whiteness and architectonic characteristics of the form are juxtaposed to the green landscape, resulting in a powerful but restful aesthetic. All of Meier's works stand as sculptural forms as well as functional buildings.
Meier's most contested building is the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Sitting on the hillside that overlooks both Los Angeles and Santa Monica, the Getty is a series of buildings that seeks to bring together a huge and eclectic art collection. Driven by the immense resources of the Getty Foundation and the size of the collection, the museum space, comprised of six buildings, has been compared to an acropolis. To some, the scale of the project served to limit the architect's powers of invention. The uniformity of Meier's usual white exterior was compromised in part by a beige travertine.
[Stephen C. Feinstein (2nd ed.)]
Meier, Richard Alan
Flagge & Hamm (eds.) (1997);
Frampton et al. (1975);
F&Ry (1993–7, 1999);
L. Green (ed.) (1999);
Jodidio (1993, 1995, 1995b, 1996, 1997);
Meier et al. (1996);
Pettena (ed.) (1981a)
Richard Meier (mī´ər), 1934–, American architect, b. Newark, N.J., educated at Cornell. During the 1960s, he was a member of the New York "Five" or "white" architects, a group that emulated the early International style. In such projects as the Smith House in Darien, Conn. (1965–67), Meier paid homage to the villas of Le Corbusier while at the same time carefully integrating his buildings into their natural environments. He has successfully adapted his characteristic design aesthetic to the larger scale of public buildings in such works as the extremely sculptural High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Ga. (1983). The international and public character of his work is evident in many of his later commissions: the Canal Plus building, Paris (1993); the Museum of Contemporary Art, Barcelona (1995); the Paley Center for Media, Beverly Hills (1996); the Getty Center, Brentwood, Calif. (1997), a six-building arts complex often called his masterpiece; the Courthouse and Federal Building, Central Islip, N.Y. (2000); and the "Jubilee" Church, Rome (2003). Meier is also a sculptor and has created works of cast and welded metal.