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Meier: 'Housing is neglected in terms of quality architecture'

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Richard Meier talks the architect’s role, ethics and design quality to the AJ’s Owen Pritchard as a retrospective of the Pritzker prize-winner’s work opens at his Ulm Stadthaus in Germany

You completed the Ulm Stadthaus 22 years ago and now it is showcasing your life’s work. What’s the significance of the project to you?
Part of doing the Stadthaus was to complete the cathedral square in Ulm – it’s a magnificent structure. But the space in front of it was never completed. It was just a parking lot. In doing Stadthaus we completed the cathedral square. It’s not a big project, what was unusual about it was that the programme was pretty loose. It was some exhibition space, a restaurant, a meeting room. It’s place in the city, its context was very important. So it became something of interest to the people Ulm. It is a very conservative city. All the buildings have steep, pitched roofs, so having a modern structure there was a bit of a shock to some of the elderly people.

This exhibition follows your 50 years of practice exhibition in 2013. How does putting together a retrospective force you to reassess your portfolio?
I just try to show a mixture of public private and buildings. You try to show different scales, different ideas, and different periods. Different people take different things away; you can’t predict what the reaction is going to be. People today are more interested than ever before and like to come and see different projects. This contributes to a dialogue among the public that maybe didn’t exist twenty years ago.

I don’t think the public knows what architects do. They understand the product but they don’t understand the process.

Over the course of your careers how has the role of the architect changed and has enough been done to let the public know what it is architects do?
I don’t think the public knows what architects do. They understand the product but they don’t understand the process. It’s only when a public work is controversial that the public weigh in and have an interest in the process. For the most part they react to what they see. The response varies from place to place and sometimes things get built that people are sort of shocked by, they feel its inappropriate or the scale is wrong. But there is a public interest that is greater than ever before.

In terms of housing, what role do architects play in the provision of housing – can they influence policy and cause social change, or are they responsive rather than active agents of change?
In New York and the UK housing is one of the neglected areas in terms of quality architecture. In terms of what one sees, the architecture is not as high a standard as you see in public buildings. In New York the housing that is currently being built is pretty horrendous. If architects want to get involved in politics, they can get involved with that. Personally, I am not interested in doing that. I am interested in the quality of the work. For the most part you don’t get developers who are interested in hiring good architects. People come to us with an appreciation of what we do. I don’t seek out clients for the most part, they come to us knowing full well that they are going to get a quality product.

Whatever you do, the public responsibility is greater than the private

How do you balance the commercial and social role of being an architect?
There’s no question that the architect has a public responsibility. A responsibility to the client and to the public at large. Whatever you do, the public responsibility is greater than the private. And you have responsibility to yourself.

What is happening in Prague on the scheme with Eva Jiřičná and John Pawson?
It’s a terrific project. We are doing a group of apartment buildings and a house in Prague with a rather enlightened client from the UK, who knows what he is doing is quite unique. Not only for Prague, but in the world. It’s creating a community of quality architecture. Hopefully, I would like to think that as this project develops it will inspire inspires people to do things better.

In the UK, there’s the house in Oxfordshire….
It’s under construction and going very well. I believe its going to be finished next year. A beautiful location, a great enlightened client and it’s a terrific private residence. We went before the building committee in the area, they were very open, no one is going to see it. (Laughs)

Is it getting easier?
That’s a good question. I don’t know if it is getting easier. It’s a constant struggle. It’s always changing. When you start a project, you really don’t know where it is going. Everyone has good intentions. But many factors pop up along the way.

Is there any project that you would love to do? Is there one that got away?
The ones that got away I don’t even know about. (laughs) I love doing museums, I’ve been lucky to museums in very different locations. The collections are different, the contexts are different, the relationships between and art and architecture always interested me. I wish I had a museum to work on today.

The exhibition will be on display from July 8, 2015 to November 22, 2015. Picture, Tower, Building. Richard Meier and the Ulm Minster is organised by Dr. Sylvia Claus, Prof. Dr. Matthias Schirren, the Stadthaus Ulm and Richard Meier & Partners Architects.

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