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Design

Inside Richard Meier’s Architecture Studio

By Laura van Straaten

July 1, 2015

In just the second half of this year, the Pritzker Prize–winning architect Richard Meier’s firm will have ribbon cuttings in Israel for a 39-story tower; in South Korea for a 15-story resort; in Brazil for a 10-story office building; and in Italy for both a private residence and a bridge.

But Meier has been investing a lot of attention closer to home, too. For starters, he’s the lead architect for an innovative development that will be completed this summer in downtown Newark, NJ, where Meier was born. His firm has designed five of the eight buildings that form Teachers Village, which will provide two hundred homes for teachers, three charter schools, a daycare center, and retail space in an area that for decades was a synonym for urban blight.

And that project jibes with another kind of homecoming for Meier that started nearly 18 months ago. Meier moved 150 of his architectural models (dating back to 1965) and his own artwork from New York City into his brand-new 15,000-square-foot private museum on the arts campus known as Mana Contemporary in Jersey City, NJ.

At the far end of the loft, a simple partial wall carves out the private studio Meier also created for himself, where he now spends at least one day a week on the collages he’s been making as a personal pastime for 50 years.

Recently, we found him behind that wall, like the Wizard of Oz, perhaps taken aback at first by the presence of a visitor but ultimately as warmly charming. This man behind the curtain wore a black V-neck that was strewn with bits of paper, as he playfully arranged souvenirs that he keeps for years into collages. These days, he prints many of them with his friend Gary Lichtenstein, the master screen-printer whose studio is adjacent. Gagosian and the Zurich-based Galerie Gmurzynska have both mounted shows of Meier’s collages.

Several weeks ago, in Meier’s bustling architecture studio in Manhattan, we caught up with him about his creative life these days.

WHITEWALL: How much time are you spending in Jersey City these days?

RICHARD MEIER: I used to take Fridays off in the summer. Now, instead of taking Fridays off, I take Thursdays off and go to Jersey City to Mana to work on collages. I don’t work on architecture out there. When there’s no traffic, it’s very close. When I’m here in my architecture office in Chelsea, I’m working on architecture.

WW: Do you feel the same sensitivity to the critical eye with your artwork as you do with your architecture?

RM: I do architecture as a public art and I do collages as a private art. I don’t do it for other people. I do it for myself.

WW: Is it a similar process for you when you’re moving collage materials around on paper as it is when you’re designing space? It seems that they’re both about composition and spatial relationships.

RM: Well, there’s a certain order to both, but there’s also disorder to collage. It feels completely different. And one is purely two-dimensional and the other is two-dimensional but it’s about making three-dimensional space.

WW: Is the ability to play with color freeing for you, since you adamantly don’t do that in your architecture?

RM: I might say, “Look, I think I’ll do a red collage.” I set up criteria for myself.

WW: So you set up parameters in which you have to work, like you would with architecture? Is that because you agree that creativity within boundaries is best—that boundless creativity is terrifying and yields horrors?

RM: Right. That’s why I set a certain format and I work within that format.

WW: Tell me about the steel sculptures on view throughout Mana in your museum of architectural models.

RM: Well, the sculptures are sort of three-dimensional collages, as in they’re made from parts of models that we made out of wood and then I cast them and put them together. So when I start, it’s like doing a collage. It’s taking pieces of models which have been cast in stainless steel and collaging them in three dimensions.

WW: Marianne Boesky had a show of Frank Stella work at her Chelsea gallery in Manhattan a few months ago and it included some of his tabletop pieces. You and Stella have been friends since the late fifties, but it was astounding how much your sculpture looks like his. Were you guys just hanging out one day in the foundry upstate where Stella works? How did your experimenting in sculpture come about?

RM: [Gestures toward the large Stella wall sculpture that faces his desk] Frank said, “Come up to the foundry, I want to show you some of the things I’m working on.” So I went up with him and he said, “Look, I have work to do, why don’t you—”

WW: —Go play?

RM: [Laughs] Yes. So I did. So I found a corner where I could do some things, and Frank said, “Okay, we can go now.” And I said “No, no. I’m not ready yet. I’ll stay. You go.”

WW: Why did you stop working in steel?

RM: I did it for a number of years. I didn’t know what to do with all the stuff. They kept getting bigger and bigger. Some of the big pieces that aren’t on view at Mana are actually in the woods near my house in Long Island ’cause they’re too big. They’re out in the area that I cleared in the woods.

WW: In 2011 when you and Stella jointly gave The Eli Broad lecture at Cornell, which was your alma mater, you said, “I learned from Frank that art excludes anything that is not necessary.” Wouldn’t that be the mantra for architecture more so than art and also something you would have learned long ago?

RM: Yes.

WW: There’s a famous story of how you sidled up to Le Corbusier at an event and he wouldn’t even hire you as an unpaid intern in his architecture firm. You’ve now become known for creating more buildings using his ideas than the man himself. What did you think of the Le Corbusier show at the Museum of Modern Art in 2013, which also showcased his painting?

RM: Well, Corbusier used to spend every morning painting and every afternoon doing architecture. So he sort of split his time between being a painter and being an architect.

WW: Do you think he considered himself an architect before an artist, or artist before architect?

RM: I think architect before an artist. I think the same about myself.

WW: But there’s something that still impels you to keep creating—to find that quiet time to just “go play”?

RM: Yes.

WW: Now for the wild card questions. Believe it or not, walking around New York, this is a source of constant wonder: Would you rather live in an ugly building and look out at a beautiful building, or vice versa?

RM: I’d rather live in a beautiful building. Views are not that important. This view [gestures out his north-facing window toward the West Thirties] is certainly undistinguished.

WW: It’s fabulous!

RM: Sure, you see the Empire State Building, but what’s good is its sense of space. You get a view of Manhattan from its backside, as it were. But I think what’s more important is the quality of light and the way light comes in.

WW: Okay, and—this is a dinner party favorite—if you could blow up any building in the world and get away with it, just because you hate it, what would it be?

RM: Oh boy, there are so many! Well, there’s a building actually right down the street here, on Thirty-third Street; it’s a concrete frame and it’s really ugly.

WW: Oh, I know which building you mean. I used to work in that building! The building where WNET and the Associated Press were—right on Tenth Avenue near where the end of the High Line is now?

RM: Yes. Really terrible.

WW: It’s horrible both inside and out. Wow, you’ve even got good taste as a detonator!

RM: Yeah. [Laughs]

This article is published in Whitewall‘s summer 2015 issue.

Laura van StraatenRichard MeierShawn BrackbillWhitewall

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