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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Richard Meier

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-11-17

Richard Meier has large, powerful hands that seem continually in motion.

At first glance, one might associate them more with a pugilist, or someone engaged in rigorous manual labor, rather than with a celebrated architect, the New Jersey-born man who was the youngest architect ever to receive his profession's highest award, the Pritzker Prize.

It's easy to imagine him raising buildings by the sheer energy emanating from those hands, with a hardhat covering his silvery mane and his tall frame dominating the site. It's easy to imagine him giving orders in his baritone. It's easy to imagine him framed against steel girders and huge cranes of the very edifices, museums and homes he's built in America and all around the world.

It's not so easy to picture Mr. Meier making sketches with a slim pencil ("Draughting 02237," manufactured by the Sanford Corporation) in a white cubic space approximately 18-feet by 18-feet by 18-feet, with floor to ceiling industrial windows on the east-facing wall, and floor-to-ceiling books on the west wall.

But this is indeed where Mr. Meier works, in a quiet office on Tenth Avenue that's furnished with an 11-foot by 3-foot-10.5inch white lacquer table and six Josef Hoffmann arm chairs.

"It's a long way from where I started," Mr. Meier said. "I've always felt lucky that I chose this career."

The choice was made early, growing up as the oldest of three sons of Jerome and Carolyn Meier in Maplewood, N.J. One day, when Richard was about 10 or 11, a family friend asked, "What are you going to do when you grow up?"

"I'm going to be an architect," Richard replied.

Fast forward to this lunch 60 years later.

"How did you know you wanted to be an architect?" the reporter asked.

"I liked to make things - you know, toy boats, little models," Mr. Meier said. "But did I know back then what an architect was? Of course not."

He learned his architecture at Cornell University, although his father - a civil engineer who became a wholesale wine and liquor salesman - wanted him to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Mr. Meier had also won admission.

"Architecture, like any field, requires total focus - relentless hard work, which is what I did at Cornell," Mr. Meier said.

Hard work wasn't an alien concept for him. During his school days, he drove Good Humor ice-cream trucks. He scrubbed floors at an architect's office in Newark, eager to learn the craft but disappointed to find that none of the professionals seemed willing to mentor him. After graduation from Cornell, he traveled to Israel, Greece, Germany, France, Denmark, Finland and Italy, among other places, to network with architects.

One of them was Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, the Swiss-born architect who adopted the name of his maternal grandfather, Le Corbusier, and became a legend of his time. Mr. Meier tried repeatedly to see him but was turned down by Le Corbusier's haughty assistant.

One morning, Le Corbusier was to attend the inauguration of Maison du Brasil, a building he'd designed at the University of Paris. Mr. Meier found himself next to the great man, as both waited for the ceremonies to commence. Naturally, Mr. Meier asked if he could work with him.

"No" was Le Corbusier's immediate answer, he never employed Americans.

"Why?" Mr. Meier asked.

Because no American museum had exhibited his works, Le Corbusier said. New York's Museum of Modern Art canceled his show in 1938, re-scheduled it for 1945, and canceled it again.

And so, no job for Mr. Meier in Paris.

But there were jobs in New York. Marcel Breuer became a mentor. One employer was the architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Its pre-eminent figure and the creator of the landmark Lever House, Gordon Bunshaft, took a liking for him and predicted that Mr. Meier would flourish at the firm.

"But after six months, I found that I didn't want to work in a corporate environment," Mr. Meier recalled.

He tendered his resignation.

"You're crazy," Bunshaft said. "Why leave now?"

Mr. Meier left to set up his own shop in 1963. It was a two-room walk-up on Park Avenue and 91st Street, where he both lived and worked. He set up an easel for painting (his works are in storage now). His oak-colored butcher block dining table doubled as his work station.

From that station flowed designs for dozens of projects. One of his earliest ones was an exhibition at the Jewish Museum, titled "Recent American Synagogue Architecture." Another was Lambert House on Fire Island, whose incipient owner wanted it built for $9,000.

To keep to that budget, Mr. Meier bought collapsible wood frames from a Midwestern company that also produced material for log cabins.

"I slept on the beach for nine days," he said. "But I got that house built for $9,000."

In view of all his subsequent accomplishments - the Getty Center in Los Angeles, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the Museum fuer Kunsthandwerk in Frankfurt, and the Westbeth Artists Community, 173/176 Perry Street, 165 Charles Street in New York, among others - that house on the beach now seems almost a metaphor for Mr. Meier's methodology.

"I concentrate on getting to the next stage in any project," he said. "My concern is with getting things built."

That house on Fire Island also hinted at what would be Mr. Meier's special style.

"I've always emphasized openness, transparency, rigor of expression," he said. "Fundamentally, my meditations are on space, form, light and how to make them. The goal is presence, not illusion and this I pursue with unrelenting vigor for I believe that this is the heart and soul of architecture."
Listening to Mr. Meier is akin to being transported to a discourse on philosophy.

"Mine is a preoccupation with light and space - not abstract space, not scaleless space, but space whose order and definition are related to light, to human scale and to the culture of architecture," he said. "I work with volume and surface, manipulating forms in light, changes of scale and view, movement and stasis."

His favorite color?

"White," Mr. Meier said. "Whiteness has been one means of sharpening perception and heightening the power of visual form."

His forthcoming projects include Sheldon Solow's East River Masterplan, a part of a four-parcel property between 35th and 41st Streets along the FDR Drive, just south of the United Nations. Mr. Meier is collaborating with David Childs and Marilyn Taylor of Skidmore Wings.

Of all his work, is there one that is closest to his heart?

"The house that I built for my parents in Essex Fells, New Jersey," Mr. Meier said. "It gave them enormous pleasure. And it significantly changed my relationship with my father. He was always an inward-looking man, someone who rarely expressed emotion. But when he saw that house, I knew how proud he felt that I was his son. And that made me very proud."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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