Passion for purity

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“White is the most wonderful colour because within it you can see all the colours of the rainbow … The whiteness of white is never just white; it is almost always transformed by light and that which is changing; the sky, the clouds, the sun and the moon.” – Richard Meier
The white walls of Modernism resonate in the buildings by Richard Meier. The pristine and early ideas of Le Corbusier, the purity of Mies van der Rohe and the sensuality of Alvar Aalto are extended, combined and rationalised by him. The absoluteness of his white structures act as a contrasting and clean background that allows the spatial perception of light, shadow, solids and voids. Far from abstraction, Meier’s genuine preoccupation with colour and design integrity unveils an existential order where spaces are defined by human scale.
Meier was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1934. After having graduated from Cornell University, USA, and gained experience in the offices of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, and Marcel Breuer, he established his private practice in New York in 1963. Working from his apartment, Meier launched his career with a residential commission for his mother and father; however, it was a single dwelling in Connecticut – the Smith House in Darien – that propelled him into international prominence. This project has been assimilated as an enduring reference and key component of contemporary architectural language. In 1967, Meier converted the old Bell Telephone Laboratories in Manhattan’s Greenwich into apartment units for 1200 people, coining the term ‘adaptive re-use’. The same year, next to Eisenman, Graves, Gwathmey and Hejduk, Meier was identified as one of the New York Five in an exhibition curated by Arthur Drexler at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The subsequent Five Architects book, published in 1972, became a cult manifesto of modernism, clarity and rational expressionism.
Meier’s best examples of simultaneously conventional and provocative architecture can be found in his designs for museums and social institutions. The New Harmony’s Atheneum, Indiana (1979), the High Museum of Art, Atlanta (1983), The Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art (1995), The Getty Centre, Los Angeles (1997), the Museum Frieder Burda, Baden-Baden (2004), and the Jubilee Church (2003) and the Ara Pacis Museum, both in Rome (2006) are not only consistent, related and visually compelling structures but also conceptual elaborations on place. These buildings show how simple geometric operations, layered definition of spaces and effects of light and shade can turn a space into a place – what Meier denominates “placeness”.
In a life dedicated to architecture, Meier has been recognised with the highest honours in architecture. He was the sixth, and youngest, architect to be honoured with the Pritzker Prize in 1984, and in 1997 he received the AIA Gold Medal from the American Institute of Architects as well as the Praemium Imperiale from the Japanese Government. The integrity and vigour of his architecture has also been officially acknowledged in Germany, France and the United Kingdom.
What are the principles of your architecture?
My design philosophy is defined by a few things, like light, human scale and site and context. Our primary goal is to create a strong sense of place, so we look at the context of each project for clues that can inspire a formal idea about the organisation, scale and location of a project. We also think about natural light, which is probably the most fundamental element to our work. The order and geometric proportions of a building are also important, how one moves through a building and how one feels in the space.
My philosophy has remained intact; that is the realisation that the materials of architecture are inert, not organic or natural. Architecture is man-made and remains intact, while nature is ever changing. However, the development of those inert materials is important. I search for new materials that will look the same in 50 years. Over the past 50 years we’ve been able to experiment with many new technologies and materials and that has brought a lot of new possibilities to our work.
Your architecture has very specific elements and recurrent characteristics, such as the colour white, the orthogonal grids and certain curvilinear shapes. What does this repetition say?
Well, I don’t think they are repetitive. There are constant themes in architecture, and I am responding to those themes, but I don’t walk onto a site and see white metal panels in my head. I want there to be a sense of well being, of community, of peace and awe. My architecture is part of a continuum.
Each project is different, though it may have similar characteristics. Architects don’t change from day to day. You have to look at it from a historical context and see its relationship to what came before and how it will influence the future. Each project is just an attempt at making that connection and having that influence. My meanings are always internalised, my metaphors are purely architectural.
You received the Pritzker Prize when you were 49, a young age. What did you learn from it?
It probably helped us get business. I have to think that perhaps the recognition helps to be considered for new projects.
How do you keep invigorating your architecture?
The advancement in technology and the emphasis today on sustainability has had a major influence. There is a heightened awareness that architecture can’t just be beautiful, it has to be green. It has to give back. We’ve been able to incorporate new sustainable technologies which have changed the look and feel and even the parameters of what is possible. For example we are working with pollution-eating self-cleaning concrete; it always stays white! It’s been developed by Italcementi, the cement company, and we’re using it in the design of their new headquarters and research facility in Italy. We’re really stretching the boundaries of the material in terms of design and engineering.
The houses by Richard Meier have come to symbolise the American life. How do you relate to America and its values?
When people reference the “American Dream” they mean a free standing house with a white picket fence. I like to think I’ve taken that idea in a more modern direction. My houses have all the classic elements of a white, elegant pristine environment, but I don’t really relate them to American values. I would say Americans are aspirational, and maybe my houses have come to symbolise something of that nature.
Openness and clarity are characteristics that represent American architecture at its best, and they are the principles which I hope to bring to every design endeavour.
So what does your architecture say about the modern human condition?
That it is ever changing as I feel my architecture is ever changing. At no time in the day does it look the same, thanks to the nature around it. I want there to be a sense of the individual in the space. It is important to me how each person feels as they move through the space; that is why human scale is so important.
You have worked consistently in America and Europe and you are currently working in China and pursuing new markets. How does your architecture reflect these new cultures?
I would say the culture has a great effect on the architecture. The architecture is the response to its context. In China the design is more delicate and the interiors are equally affected down to floor plans and amenities. It’s interesting working in foreign countries, not just from a design perspective but what you learn about a people and how they live.
How has your practice embedded sustainability? How have you witnessed the evolution of this notion in your architectural trajectory?
Today sustainability is a given. LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] is a given. We’ve always been sustainable in our philosophy and practice, thinking about light and energy 40 years ago. Now we are forced to think further ahead. How will this building affect its community twenty, thirty, 50 years from now? Will it be a drain? Will it need to be renovated? The most important thing today is quality and building things well for tomorrow. Building is a natural cycle. Sustainable architecture offers us a chance to build smarter better buildings and create better urban environments that meet the needs of our growing populations.
I would like to move into emerging markets like Brazil and India to contribute to their traditions of modern architecture and also to give back to those communities through civic works that have an influence beyond themselves, that somehow help to elevate the community and the economies they are in. I believe that architecture has the power to inspire, to elevate the spirit, to feed both the mind and the body. It is for me the most public of the arts. Monumentality is a result.
by Christian Parreño
Taken from the Glass Archive – Issue Six – Passion

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