I never did wrap up my series of posts on Richard Meier. The last chapter of that story was a talk he gave at the 92nd Street Y, which was fantastic. I often find it interesting just how charming these people can be. Not that I don't think architects should be charming. In fact, it should come as little surprise that those of them who make such a huge name for themselves should have something more than just raw talent: charm, charisma, great personal style, or some other elusive and attractive quality. But he really was charming.
One interesting observation came out about the Perry Street buildings in the talk. It was that they sort of marked something very new in the world of real estate. The fact that these were Meier-designed buildings was what made them a commodity. In fact, they pointed out that a good number of people purchased apartments in these buildings, never lived in them, and had no intention of ever living in them. Instead, they wanted them merely as one might invest in a painting by an important Modernist painter but never hang it on the wall.
He was also asked by an audience member (via index card) why his buildings were always white. The way the question was posed included the implication that the whiteness is somehow cold and inhospitable. His response was quite interesting. Essentially, white is the most architectural of any color choice. It responds to its context by not competing with it for dominance. In a natural setting, for instance, because his buildings are white, one is even more acutely aware of the greenery that surrounds them. It also means that one isn't distracted by the materials out of which the building is built but can better appreciate the more purely architectural expressions of volume, contour, and circulation.
The front page of Meier's website, as a matter of fact, alternately quotes him as saying in his Pritzker Prize acceptance speech, "White is the most wonderful color because within it you can see all the colors 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."
As he went on, I had to pat myself on the back just a little, because as I often do, I got it. In response to the idea that his buildings are less hospitable than they might be in different materials, he explained that the scale of his buildings is extremely carefully considered. The very consciously humane scaling of his buildings, as he sees it, will interact with people on a much deeper and more meaningful level than something as superficial as wooden paneling or an ergonomic doorknob. I'm tempted to say that, from my personal experience of his work, he's absolutely correct.
There was also one memorably amusing anecdote about his Neugeberger House (1998). It was to be built in a prestigious (possibly gated?) community in Naples, Florida, that had somewhat strict zoning requirements. When faced with the prospect of a Meier-designed building, they consented to giving him some amount of freedom but demanded that the house have a pitched roof. Meier said he just really didn't think he could bring himself to design a house with a pitched roof, so he gave them this:
Click for larger.
--Photo courtesy the architect's website.
I love that so very much: delightfully sneaky and completely hilarious. By the time they realized what he'd done, it was no doubt too late to change their minds, but he said he had a feeling the neighborhood community board were going to rewrite their ordinances to be much more specific after that.
By the way, 92Y have rescheduled the talk with Santiago Calatrava for October 4th. Mostly unrelated here, despite my recent letter to a suicide bomber, the following night will be Christopher Hitchens debating whether Islam is a religion of peace, which should be fascinating and heated, and very funny if Hitch has his way with it. Then a week later, on October 13th, Frank Gehry will be there. I honestly don't know how 92Y manages to get such incredible speakers, but my gratitude that they do manage it is overflowing.
©2010, Ryan Witte