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Richard Meier: Whiteness is what distinguishes manmade from natural

New York City: October 2003, May 2005, October 2010

By Vladimir Belogolovsky

Born:              1934, Newark, New Jersey

Education:     Cornell University, Bachelor of Architecture (1957)

Practice:        Since 1963; offices in New York and Los Angeles

Projects:        Ara Pacis Museum, Rome, Italy (2006); Jubilee Church, Rome, Italy (2003); 173/176 Perry Street, Manhattan (2002); Getty Center, Los Angeles, California (1997); Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art, Barcelona, Spain (1995); Canal+ Headquarters, Paris, France (1992); Frankfurt Museum for the Decorative Arts, Frankfurt, Germany (1985); High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia (1983); The Atheneum, New Harmony, Indiana (1979); Douglas House, Harbor Springs, Michigan (1973); Smith House, Darien, Connecticut, (1967)

Books:           Richard Meier: Timepieces: 50 Years of Collage (Galerie Gmurzynska, 2014); Richard Meier by Philip Jodidio (2013), Richard Meier Architect, Vol 1-6 (1991-2014); Richard Meier (Taschen, 2012); Richard Meier (Phaidon Press, 2012); Meier: Richard Meier & Partners, Complete Works 1963-2008 (Taschen; 2008); Richard Meier Museums (Rizzoli, 2006); Richard Meier: The Architect as Designer and Artist by Volker Fischer (Axel Menges, 2003); Richard Meier Architect (Monacelli Press, 2000); Building the Getty (University of California Press, 1999); Richard Meier Houses (Rizzoli, 1996); Richard Meier Works and Projects (Editorial Gustavo Gili, 1996); Richard Meier Details (Birkhäuser, 1996)

Awards:         Pritzker Prize (1984); Academy of Arts and Letters Gold Medal in Architecture (2008); AIA Gold Medal (1997); RIBA Gold Medal (1989)



Today is exactly twenty years since the High Museum opened in Atlanta. Is it one of your favorite buildings?


Well, it is because this is the first museum that I finished. At the time I was also working on Frankfurt Museum of Applied Arts, which was commissioned earlier but the High Museum was finished first. It is a wonderful museum and it has a great ongoing life. Now at its twentieth anniversary they opened up the skylights to reflect how we originally designed it. So it is reborn.  


How do you feel about when the Museum decided to hire another architect to expand it?


Even when I designed the High Museum, the director at that time asked me to make some sketches how it would expand, because it is inevitable that it will. Museums tend to collect and grow, and expand their programs. So I made some very rough sketches and showed how it would connect to a new building and I gave them to the director. And now I heard that Renzo Piano was selected as the architect. They thought it was important to have someone new.


To celebrate the twentieth anniversary the Museum launched a curious exhibit The Undiscovered Richard Meier: The Architect as Designer and Artist. Your sculptures there seem to be very different from your architecture. They are dark and apocalyptic as oppose to your buildings that are full of light and optimism. Why?


Well, sculpture is not architecture. There is no point in doing sculpture that looks like architecture or architecture that looks like sculpture. When I work on my sculptures, I want to be free. I’m just using elements and pieces that are leftovers from models that we make in our model making shop. These sculptures are three-dimensional collages of different kinds of elements. Some are more open and transparent, some are more planer, and some are more volumetric. But it is about dealing with those kinds of issues, rather than dealing with space that we live in and move through, and inhabit. 


Where do you make these sculptures?


In an upstate New York foundry. It is my hobby.  


Many of your paper collages are dominated by red color and Cyrillic script. What are they about?


I went to Russia in the 1980s and I gave a lecture to students of architecture in Leningrad and Moscow. I traveled around a little bit and I brought back a big roll of Russian posters, which I used for my collages. My collages are made from found objects. I use tickets and stamps, and other things that I bring from my travels. Since I don’t understand Russian language I use it as total abstraction. I don’t know what it says. I just use it as a material for collage. And I like using bold colors, which is again very different from my architecture. If I only made collages out of white paper, at a certain point, it would be repetitive. Don’t you think?


What memories do you have about your trip to Russia?


I had an interest just being there. I remember walking through the Hermitage, the most extraordinary museum in the world. And the windows were open and the breeze was going in. It was so casual. It was amazing. 


You said in the past that your favorite building is the next one, but if I ask you to name three of your built works, which ones give you most satisfaction?


I would say that all of these projects are museums. Let’s say the Getty Center, the Museum for the Decorative Arts in Frankfurt, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona. When I look back, I am very happy about these buildings.


What are the qualities of each of these buildings that you intended to emphasize the most?


They are all different—different times, situations, and contexts. At the Getty, the most important thing is the relationship between inside and outside; how different buildings relate to each other and to the garden. In Frankfurt, it is about the relationship between the new building and the existing one; the relation to the park and to the city. And in Barcelona, the context is much more urban. 


Was the museum in Barcelona a competition project?


No, I was invited by Barcelona mayor to go there and pick the site. We walked in different neighborhoods and picked one together.


The mayor invited you because he wanted to have a Richard Meier building in the city?


That’s right. The same happened in Rome for the Ara Pacis Museum. The original building for the altar was falling apart, so the mayor of Rome invited me to build a new one.


Your very first commission was your parents’ house. What kind of a house was it?


My parents lived in a rather conventional house in Newark, New Jersey. It was three stories tall and especially my father was tired walking up and down all those stairs. They wanted a smaller, simpler house on one level. So they bought a small site and I built a one-story house for them.


You just mentioned Newark where you grew up. Isn’t it where Peter Eisenman also from?


Yes, Peter and I grew up in the same town. We went to the same high school and the same university. He is a few years older than I am but I knew him in high school because he was a cheerleader in a sports team. He is also a distant cousin of mine.


What words would you chose to describe your architecture?


Open, transparent, filled with light, rational.


Would you mind telling me what is architecture for you?


Architecture is really about making space for human habitation in an uplifting and meaningful way. It is about space that moves you and has an aura of something quite special.


Does it have to be habitable?


Yes. You know, a sculptor can make a square wheel but an architect has to make it round. So that goes without saying.


What kind of a place do you live in?


I live in an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. It is a conventional apartment, which I modified only slightly.


Wouldn’t you rather live at one of the three glass towers you designed on the West Side overlooking the Hudson?


I wanted to move there but I don’t have time to design a new place, get it built, and then move.


Many of the people living in those glass towers are celebrities. Was there ever an issue of a compromise between privacy and transparency?


Well, you just pull the blinds and you have privacy, just like here in my own office. You see it is open and transparent but if I need privacy, I just pull the blinds.


But is it allowed to put the curtains or blinds in your buildings? Wouldn’t the curtains dramatically alter the look of the buildings, which are almost entirely glazed?


Well, we are going to provide curtains, designed by us. So people can do whatever they want once the curtains are pulled.


The Getty Center is the most prominent of your projects. It is known that there were over one hundred restrictions in the guidelines. But what you did absolutely your way was to use your famous grids, as many of your projects are based on a modular system. Is it true that the entire Getty Center is laid out on 30- by 30-inch grid?


Yes and it works horizontally, as well as vertically. It is very hard to do. All of my projects are laid on grids but the grid usually varies, depending on a situation and what seems appropriate. I always try to have a module. Sometimes we start with one dimension and end up with a very different one for many different reasons. Remember that a module is not something rigid that you can’t change within a system. You can have the same distance between the columns and a variety of additional modular systems.


How would you describe the experience working on Jubilee Church in Rome?


Very unusual. When I won the competition, they said, “We love it. Don’t change it”. And I said: “Well, I think we can make it better.” But they didn’t want me to change anything. That is very unusual. And basically what is built now is what was designed at the time of the competition.


Geometrically, it is a radical departure from most of your projects. Did you do many schemes for that project?


No, just one.


Where did the idea of using spherical forms come from?


It came from the site. It is a vast open space and that’s how I imagined it when I was there.


After you won the competition you were received by the Pope John Paul II. What was his involvement in the project?


I explained the project to the Pope and he loved it. Then we exchanged gifts. That was the only time I met the Pope.


What was your present to him?


One of my original drawings of the church.


And what did you get?


I think it was a pin or something…


I read critics’ contemplations about a missing chance in this project for you to use bright colors for stained glass window, like the one in Ronchamp by Le Corbusier.


Well, there was a chance but I chose not to. I didn’t think it was necessary. It didn’t seem it would add anything. There is light and color all around it. 


What do you think about Le Corbusier’s colors?


No. I never liked how he used his colors.


Did you look at his work through black and white lenses?

That’s true, and I saw a lot of his buildings in person.


Have you been to La Tourette? Some architects say it is the most powerful work of modern architecture.


La Tourette is magnificent. The organization of the building, how it sits on the site… But color is really incidental there. Color is not what makes a building.


I love your wall sculpture by Frank Stella here at your office; it beams like a beacon with the most vivid colors I have ever seen. 


I love them; I sit here and look at his colors every day. It gives color to the room in a way flowers on my desk give color to this room as well. I met Frank in 1959. We used to go to the same painting school, and, after classes, we would go for beer together. We became very good friends.


Did you two ever collaborate?


No, but we always talk about such possibilities. One day, we will.


Your projects are often described as rationalist buildings that make prominent use of the color white. What are the main advantages of white buildings?  


First, white articulates the volume—it articulates architectural ideas in the clearest way. The linear elements such as window frames or handrails juxtaposed against plainer elements read most clearly in white. Second, white buildings always change color, and diverse colors of nature are always reflected and refracted in the whiteness of a white building. To me, that’s very important. White has many colors. In my first projects, I used painted wood, and then, I discovered metal panels, a durable material that could last and that could express ideas inherent in my architecture. Metal panels, of course, could be used not only in rectilinear forms, but also in curves and fluid shapes that one couldn’t do with other materials. 


How did your fascination with white begin?


It began with a lot of reading about the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright talked about organic and natural materials and the fact that architecture was organic. But architecture is not organic. You cut down a tree, and it is no longer organic or living. It is static. When you use the wood, you have to protect it. Either you seal it, or you paint it. Painting the wood is what preserves it. So the whiteness is what distinguishes manmade from natural. Therefore, Frank Lloyd Wright was wrong. 


So you are going against Wright, and by using white you emphasize the fact that, in your view, architecture is not organic.


Absolutely. I should also say that I could not have done any of my houses the way that I did without being in awe of Fallingwater. But I also drew a clear separation between architecture and nature, which in Wright’s case was much fuzzier.


In the 1980s a lot of architects turned to Post-Modernism with their affection for historicist motifs. Your architecture then and now has been consistently modernist. What is it about Modernism that attracts you so much?


It is in my blood! I was born a Modernist. I grew up a Modernist. I believe in the world of today, not the world of the past. I believe in the future. You know, Post-Modernism was never popular in Europe. And during the time it was very popular in America I had a lot of commissions over there. Countries like France and Italy had some influence but not so much in other parts of Europe because in Europe there is a very different sense of history. I think in America it was a lack of history that allowed some people to direct their imagination into this kind of pseudo-history.    


Some architectural critics complain that your architecture no longer surprises in the way the Smith House or Douglas House once did. Critic Joseph Giovannini wrote, “We have grown to expect Meier from Meier.” How would you respond to such criticism?


Well, do you like classical music?




Good. I love classical music too. I can listen to Beethoven over and over again. It is always Beethoven for me and his music is fabulous. I wish each of my buildings were as good as each of Beethoven’s symphonies. I don’t expect Bach from Beethoven.

Getty Center, Los Angeles, USA, 1997

Photographer © Scott Frances

Museum of Contemporary Art, Barcelona, Spain, 1995

Photographer © Scott Frances

Museum of Contemporary Art, Barcelona, Spain, 1995

Photographer © Scott Frances