Sunday, January 31, 2010

Mired in Meier--Part One

I have long been a fan of Richard Meier, but lately I seem to be inundated with information concerning Meier and his career, so I felt it was about time for a series of posts about one of the greatest American architects of all time.

The first thing was that I'd heard that the warehouse space in Long Island City where the firm stores all their models is open to the public by appointment, on Fridays from mid-May until mid-October. I was flabbergasted that I'd never heard that before, and was terribly excited, so I made an appointment to go. I was by myself, and ended up being sandwiched between two huge groups of (presumably architectural) college students. The timing was excellent, because I basically had the whole place to myself. I was greeted by two terribly nice representatives from Meier's office, a woman I believe from the public relations department and a young guy who helps construct the models. They were both extremely helpful and I really enjoyed talking to them.

I told them the story about being in the Hague to see the Vermeer Retrospective. We were walking around the town, down this somewhat major avenue, and I looked down this side street. I stopped in my tracks and said to my friend, "that's a Richard Meier building." There was just no mistaking it, it was so obvious. So we decided to go take a look at it. It turned out to be the Hague City Hall and Central Library (1995), which was only just completed when we were there.

--Photos courtesy of the Richard Meier website.
It was remarkable to notice how extraordinary this building was in person. I'd seen tons of Meier's work in photographs, but there was just nothing to compare to being in the physical presence of one of his structures. The proportions and massing, the scale and development of forms as one walked around it on foot, it was all just delightful.

It's somewhat strange to imagine--as it's said of photographic reproductions of paintings--that nothing could beat seeing a building in person. Even if there's something in the photo to give a sense of scale, even if, presumably, the camera is being aimed from the vantage point of a normal human eye, it's true at least with great works of architecture. In fact, this was one of the main problems I had in studying the stunning photography of the Getty Center: there's not a single human being to be found in any of them, which makes the structures seem to float in some kind of limbo of scale. They're more purely about form, of course, but buildings aren't sculptures. They're meant to be occupied. I might even be inclined to suggest that architectural photography should employ human models.

I took some great photos of my own of the City Hall and Library, but I have yet to get all my thousands of film photos scanned into a computer. That may take a while.

Meier's model gallery is completely insane. My hosts told me that Meier considers the models indispensable to his design process. He uses them to work out every detail of his projects. The Getty Museum, for instance, demanded something like 115 different models. Of course much of his practice is finished off on computers, but he much prefers the hands-on physicality of a miniature model to work out his forms. He maintains ownership of every last model that has ever been created during his career. They told me he will gladly loan a model out to whoever commissioned the building, for whatever purpose or for however long, but his feeling is "the building belongs to you, the model belongs to me."

I was also asked to refrain from mentioning any of the smaller models specifically. Evidently not all of them are stored there year round or always on view. Instead they rotate those around depending on what they feel might be of interest to visitors at any given time. Likely some of the more important ones, things like the Smith House, that began his career, are more often kept on view than others. But the point is, she said, they don't want people coming to see particular things and discovering them nowhere to be found.

The most impressive things to see there and which will always be on view, are the models of the Getty Museum. They have the very first, rudimentary one where Meier was getting a handle on the site and how he would arrange the disparate programmatic elements on the hilltop. Then there's a series including a few more after that one, about the same size, which shows the development of the project into something more concrete.

--Photos by Scott Frances courtesy Metropolis (link above).
You can't possibly miss, however, as soon as you walk in the door, the largest model of the Getty. It's eleven by eighteen feet in size and is probably the biggest architectural model I have ever seen. The only thing comparable that I can think of at the moment that I have seen is the train set at the Carnegie Science Center, which I discussed here. It's so large, in fact, that in order to even get it into the room, they had to hoist it up by crane, remove the skylight in the ceiling, and lower it down into the gallery. It's also divided up into smaller sections that can be rolled apart so you can get a closer look at the details.

The great thing about the next largest model is that it shows the original landscaping that Meier designed for the site himself. The landscaping of the big central green was later given to a different landscape architect, Emmet Wemple, and allegedly Meier was not very pleased with the result. Dan Kiley, who refuses to stop making his way into posts here, consulted on the project, as well.

Then there are countless smaller models of individual details of the Getty complex, small sections of the various buildings. But another impressive model is a giant mock-up of one of the museum's exhibition rooms. This one is about the size of a small bathroom or walk-in closet. But it was created so that the curators could actually stick their heads inside of it and get a much better impression of both how the art work could and would be displayed, and also to get a feel for the quality of the light coming from a square skylight in the ceiling of each gallery.

I took in every last morsel I could, asked a ton of questions, and overall had a great time. Before I left, they gave me this really nice little spiral-bound booklet with information about the gallery and the models in it. Finally the next group of college students had arrived, and I figured I should bid farewell. I highly recommend anyone who's a fan of Richard Meier or architecture in general to make an appointment and go see this incredible resource this coming spring.

©2010, Ryan Witte

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


I must first apologize for my recent hiatus. The holidays really took a lot out of me this year, and then I got a bit busy. But to welcome us back, I have a few news items. They're not all exactly on topic, but I found them interesting anyway and thought you would, too!

First of all, here's an article all about the MTA's Lost & Found department. I wasn't even aware that there was such a thing. If I ever lost anything on the subway, which I haven't (knock on wood), I'd likely just consider it gone forever anyway. Still, it's nice to know there's hope.

This is also terribly off-topic for this blog, but of course, I am 100% in support of all things Green. For years now, I've been saying that there really should be a service that will give you a Christmas tree with its roots bundled, and after the holiday, pick it up and replant it for next year. I mean, how many millions of beautiful, vibrant young trees have to die for this holiday every year? I think it's horrible. Well, it turns out that someone is doing exactly that, at least out west. There were benefits to it that hadn't even occurred to me, as well, like how families get the same tree every year, name it, and form a kind of relationship with it, almost like a family pet on loan. I thought that was really nice.

Much more on target is that Arquitectonica, which is really not a bad firm at all, is putting up this mostly bland structure on Forty-Second Street:

The good news, though, is that the theaters on the lower levels will have interiors designed by Frank Gehry. Woohoo! It will be only the third thing he's done in New York, and I really wish he'd be given more projects here building from the ground up, but it should be very exciting to see what they look like.

Lastly, this is also off-topic because it isn't happening in New York City, but I'm just such a huge fan of John Lautner.

--Photo courtesy Look Into My Owl.
The Palm Springs Museum has a whole show they're mounting of his work. Seriously, NO one did 007 Space Age Bachelor Pad better than Lautner. Almost makes me want to visit Palm Springs again, or listen to some Esquivel.