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Everything’s gonna be all white: Richard Meier’s 50 years in practice

AJ exclusive: American starchitect Richard Meier talks to Merlin Fulcher after more than half a century at the top of the profession

‘Things were a little bit easier back then than they are today,’ explained 79-year-old American starchitect Richard Meier about the difficulties facing the next generation of architects.

Speaking exclusively to the AJ about a career spanning more than half a century, Meier said: ‘I was able to design public housing for government. That work simply doesn’t exist today.’

Meier, who is celebrating 50 years since setting up Richard Meier & Partners Architects, took a major step towards the big time in 1970 with the Westbeth Artists Community low-cost artists’ homes and studios – a Federal-backed housing scheme in New York.

Despite his super-stardom, the white facade-loving Pritzker Prize-winner is acutely aware of the widening gulf between his career’s ‘linear path’ and the tough professional landscape facing today’s aspiring stars. 

From adolescence to acknowledged practitioner and celebrated member of the ‘New York Five’, the Meier story arc has been simple. ‘I decided I wanted to be an architect when I was very young, around 14 years old, so I went to a university which taught architecture,’ he said. After graduating from Cornell, he started working alone, ‘doing very small things’, then gradually growing his practice over the years to the point where he took up office space in New York.

A breakthrough came in 1965 when the home he designed for his parents in Essex Falls, New Jersey, picked up a clutch of awards. He said: ‘The house received a certain amount of publicity, which helped get other things.’

From then on, the commissions rolled in with cultural projects like the New Harmony Atheneum and Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, followed by major museum schemes in Spain, German and The Netherlands.

By the time Meier landed the Pritzker Prize in 1984, the recipe for winning jobs that would lead to award-winning schemes was already in place.

‘I don’t think it changed my career in any way,’ he suggested. ‘I assumed [winning the Pritzker Prize] was useful. But it’s not as though a lot of things came my way as a result.’

So does Meier recommend young architects follow in his footsteps and go into solo practice? Surprisingly, not. ‘There are many ways of being involved in architecture, one is architectural practice, another is public service, and then there is academia – it’s not as though there is one way. Potentially you can have influence in many ways.’

Perseverance, he said, is the most important thing. But is perseverance enough, considering the profession’s notorious male monoculture? Meier is optimistic that conditions have improved for women. ‘There are more women in architecture today than there have ever been,’ he says. ‘Our office is at least 50 per cent female.’

So what next for Meier, whose portfolio includes research facilities, more than a dozen museums and corporate headquarters for the likes of Vinci Partners and the Czech Republic’s public radio broadcaster?

The New Jersey-born architect did not have an immediate answer. After some thought he said: ‘I’m happy to do another building in New York.’ The practice has completed residential towers in the Big Apple but is yet to work on an office skyscraper there, he explained.

Pondering the question further, he added: ‘I’ve never built in London.’ Two years ago Meier’s proposal for the new US Embassy in Nine Elms lost out to a scheme by Philadelphia rival Kieran Timberlake.

As a result, Meier’s only UK project remains Handsmooth House – the controversial Oxfordshire villa for comedian Rowan Atkinson, described by critics as a ‘space-age petrol station’.

The criticism came as a surprise to Meier. He said: ‘The project is so far removed from any neighbour, I don’t understand how anyone could object.’ 

The scheme is currently under construction and not expected to complete this year.

Looking to the future, Meier is sceptical of the role architects could play in countering the US and UK economic downturn.

‘Architects can’t do it by themselves,’ he said.

‘They need a public will that wants good architecture and it’s very rare that an architect initiates a project.’

Turning to China’s powerhouse economy, Meier is optimistic about the continuing influence of Western architects and Western-educated designers.

‘China is very open to creative new projects. There are a lot of Chinese architects who study in England and the US before going back to China.’ These students will carry a ‘certain influence’, he said, which could perpetuate the crossover of professional ideas.

After years at the drawing board, how does the accomplished designer define good architecture? ‘It really depends on the context, how the project relates to the context, what the project does for the context, how it enhances the context, where public amenities go into it,’ he said ‘The open space is as important as the closed space.’

At 79, does Meier have plans to retire? None whatsoever. And, with a tight team of 90 and manageable workload, he still enjoys being at the coal face. He said: ‘We don’t have so many projects I can’t be involved in them all.’

MEIER: A LIFE IN PRACTICE

1957 Graduates from Cornell University with degree in architecture

1970 Completes Westbeth Artists Community in New York – a government-backed housing scheme

1971 Completes Weinstein House, Old Westbury, New York State, one of several ‘White Houses’ he would design over the next decade

1973 Completes Douglas House, Michigan, (another Modernist private residence)

1979 Designs Atheneum Visitor Centre, Harmony, Indiana, which opens in 1979

1983 High Museum, Atlanta, Georgia, opens

1984 Awarded the Pritzker Prize for High Museum

1986 Designs Hague City Hall in Holland, which completes in 1995.

1995 Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art opens

1997 Awarded AIA Gold Medal

1999 Getty Centre, Los Angeles, opens

2003 Jubilee Church in Rome opens

2009 March: Meier is on shortlist of four practices to design new US embassy (with Kieran Timberlake, Morphosis Architects and Pei Cobb Freed)

2010 February: Announcement that Meier is beaten by Kieran Timberlake to design US London embassy

2010 August: planning permission granted to build Meier’s modernist home for Rowan Atkinson in Oxfordshire countryside

 

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