Richard Meier Reflects on His Last 50 Years, With Retrospective Opening in Italy

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(© Scott Frances)

In 1963, Richard Meier left the office of Marcel Breuer to start his own firm, a staff of one that operated out of his apartment. “I lived in one room, and I worked in one room,” Meier told ARTINFO. “It wasn’t great.” He eventually upgraded, hiring his first employee after six months, then moving to a brownstone building that overlooked the garden of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Lever House on Park Avenue. Eventually, Meier moved to the very western edge of Manhattan at the suggestion of designer Massimo Vignelli (the longtime friend and fellow Modernist had already established his practice in the same building). Today, with a Pritzker Prize, dozens of architectural landmarks, and a firm that has spanned countless employees since, Meier and his staff of 60 find their home in a space that looks exactly as any designed by a Modernist protégé of Breuer’s would: a light-flooded open space only occasionally interrupted by white rectangular columns.

“What I appreciate most about Richard Meier’s projects,” said Maria Cristina Didero, the executive director of Italian mosaic design museum the Bisazza Foundation, is “the great amount of importance he puts on natural light in order to define spaces.” Shortly after seeing a recent show of his work in Mexico City, Didero approached Meier to organize a retrospective celebrating his 50 years of independence. Four-thousand miles away, on the outskirts of a small Italian town, the normally glittering  Bisazza Foundation has carved out an appropriately unadorned, brightly illuminated space for “Richard Meier: Architecture and Design” (May 8 through July 7). Like Meier’s own office, the retrospective features elaborate scale models of his iconic works — the Smith House, the Getty Center, the Jubilee Church and more — along with prototypes of his industrial designs, sketches, and photographs. Also like the architect’s office, in a room featuring a wall made of floor-to-ceiling glass, Meier has installed his familiar rectangular columns, this time leaning at angles and adorned with glass Bisazza tiles to remain as part of the foundation’s permanent collection.

We visited Meier in his bright Midtown office to discuss his architectural approach to the exhibition, his first foray into South America, and how he plans to celebrate his golden anniversary.

The Bisazza Foundation only puts on two exhibitions a year. What role did you play in the curation of your retrospective?

We’ve had a number of exhibitions recently — in Monterrey, Mexico, and different museums. We knew what looked good in the exhibition, so it wasn’t difficult to put it together. All of these other exhibitions happened relatively recently. It wasn’t starting from scratch.

And every year, the shows’ subjects make one work for the foundation’s permanent collection. How did you approach your design?

I looked at the space, and I looked at the way other artists used the space. Everything that I saw, someone [had] sort of made a piece of their work and put it in the room; you walk around it, and that’s it. I wanted something that created a space that people can walk through and see one another in a different relationship, or sit down on one of the pieces. So there are white columns that kind of tilt to one another. It’s not a space where the walls are perpendicular. All the pieces are at an angle. They don’t fall over, but they’re all in relationships with one another. It’s interacting with the space. The making of a place is an attitude about architecture, about how you move through different spaces.

When you moved here, it was at the suggestion of designer Massimo Vignelli. It was his idea that you would have your offices “on the edge.”

It was on the edge at that time. Things have really changed; the only thing that’s still there is the gas station.

He’s mentioned in the past that the isolation was a major draw to the area. Does the location of your office affect the process of your work?

Then, almost as now, there were no restaurants in the area. It’s really devoid of any place to eat. I have lunch every day at my desk. But you can see the Empire State Building. When you’re out here, you can look out over the river and watch the sun set.

At the moment, you have a few projects in South America, including an office building in Rio de Janeiro. The Modernist aesthetic in Brazil makes the country seem like a perfect location for you to work in. What took so long for you to arrive?

Well, that’s a good question. I’ve been there many times before, but this is the first time clients have asked us to do something there. I went to Rio to visit Oscar Niemeyer for his 100th birthday, and you know we had a great kind of discussion together. The interview was on television. I visited Brasilia and it was really the first time I had spent there. It’s booming. It’s amazing what’s going on. I guess it’s been that way for a while, but we were asked to do a small building there, which I’m very happy about. It’s not very big, but it’s a very nice company, and they wanted something special. We had tried to do something together with Oscar Niemeyer while he was alive for the Olympics, but nobody wanted us to.

The lead architect for the project in Rio de Janeiro once mentioned how much less is required for buildings in tropical climates, as far as cladding and building envelopes. Are there certain cities that lend themselves to your architecture better than others?

Each place is different: The climate is different, the context is different, the people are different. I like working in Rio, but I also like working in Taiwan. It’s not just about making architecture but learning about the culture while you’re there;  you learn so much more about a place as an architect than you do as a visitor. It’s rewarding.  

Not long ago, the Barbican put on a Rem Koolhaas show that he didn’t want to call a retrospective. He said that the word made him feel like he had arrived at the end of his career.

I don’t feel that way today [laughs]. I’m very happy to see all the works on display, and we’re busier now than we were then. We’re looking at things that we’re doing in the future. I think it’s good to be able to share so much of the work we have done that people wouldn’t otherwise come in contact with it. The exhibitions are good in that respect. We have all this stuff. Why keep it in the office? Send it out.

As the youngest architect to have ever taken the Pritzker Prize, did you feel any different the day before and the day after you won?

It was a great thrill. You go to a dinner, and that’s it. And I got a nice prize that I can put in a drawer. It’s always interesting to me how the jury changes. I don’t think they have a conscious agenda, but they certainly look around the world. If [Toyo Ito] from Japan gets it this year, I would imagine that — I don’t know this for a fact — but I would imagine that next year, it won’t be someone from Japan. Who knows where? They make a conscious effort to look around the world at what’s being done and who are deserving people, whether they’re from the United States or Japan or Norway or anywhere.

So since then, in addition to the Pritzker jury, the rest of the architecture world has changed dramatically. A frequent criticism I hear is that architects today do much less with their hands and much more on the computer, which some think disconnects them from their work.

You know, that’s not totally true. We have a lot of young people here, and eventually everything goes on a computer. But even when I was working before you came, I was sketching. Someone takes it and puts it on a computer, and I work over it.  We have a number of people who still sort of mark something up. They may put it on a computer, but it’s kind of a back and forth process. These pencils that I like to draw with are still available, and we go through a lot of them.   

You’ve been friends with Massimo for a very long time, and he’s also working just a few floors above you. Are there ways in which you’ve influenced each other?

I did a house in Darien, Connecticut, in 1966, I think. They originally had some furniture that wasn’t great. It was at the time that Massimo came out with those chairs — I don’t know what they’re called. They’re white lacquered chairs with black leather. Absolutely beautiful. I said these have to be the chairs that we use in the living room. This was in 1966 I guess, and I probably knew Massimo even before that, but I wanted Massimo’s furniture because he’s one of the best furniture designers around. He’s also the best graphic designer around. From the very first book I did with Rizzoli, I insisted that Massimo do the design of the book. He’s done all of our books ever since.  

How did you meet?

That’s a good question. I don’t remember.

You’ve made quite a bit of furniture yourself. How does your design process differ when it’s on a dramatically smaller scale?

Someone comes to me and says, “Do some flatware.” I can sit here, and I can make a drawing, and in a month we get a prototype, and then we rework. Architecture could take two years, three years, five years. The nice thing about doing product design is that it’s sort of instantaneous. 

So what is Richard Meier & Partners looking forward to now?

The thing is that I’m really happy about is this whole sort of anniversary. In October we’re going to have an anniversary party inviting everyone who’s ever worked in the office. We’re renting out this big floor. I really look forward to seeing people who worked with us 20, 30 years ago.  

How many people is that?

I don’t know! The good thing is that in all the books, we have a list in the back of all the people who contributed to the work at that time, so we have lists of everyone. I’m not sure if we have their addresses.

At this point, do you ever miss the days you didn’t manage so many people?

It’s very different having three or four people rather than having 60 people. I can’t complain too much.

To see images, click on the slideshow.