The last Meier

by Fabrizio Zanni

Richard Meier. Opere recenti, A cura di Silvio Cassarà, Skira, Milano 2004, (pp. 176, € 26,00)

In order to grasp Meier’s architecture we have to go back to Le Corbusier’s five points of new architecture that now seem absolute and dated. They are permeated by a moral rigour applied to human living that was surpassed a long time ago. Meier studies the five points, applies and updates them but, above all, dynamically reworks them. Instead of a moral imperative they are parts of a jeu savant that drives the architectural form in relation to urban forms without imposing any absolute rules on our living. However, it is not trapped in a sterile game with glass pearls like much contemporary architecture.

In fact, he asserts: “Le Corbusier had a big impact on my way of generating space.” Meier converts Corbusier’s plan libre into the support for an open architectural design, expressed in a complex form of the entire construction. In 1981 Manfredo Tafuri wrote, “If architecture is the sign of a pure structure Eisenman is the American who comes closest to this goal. But if architecture is a system of systems, if its communications belong to various different yet interwoven linguistic areas, Meier manifests the specific nature of the link.”

In the projected Olivetti company housing in Tarrytown, the rationalist barre is broken up and curved lines follow the contours. The same shifting from the meaning of rigid rational housing to free curved lines comes out in the Cornell University Dormitory in Ithaca. This free use of curved lines is often to contrast straight facades, like the Barcelona CCCB Headquarters seems to strengthen the bold hypothesis that his buildings are bounded by Neo-Corbusian detachment and Neo-Baroque. Meier himself stated in his Pritzker Prize acceptance speech: “I have always admired the work of Italy’s Baroque masters, especially Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s work at St. Peter’s and his contemporary Francesco Borromini, particularly for their revolutionary use of light and form.”

It seems hard to place the Smith House within the Baroque category: this house is an imperfect stereometric creation clad in white-painted clapboards. There is also the shooting star-like Getty Center, based on the convergence and divergence of multiple axes, vanishing points and centres of attraction. So it may be possible to talk about a transition from the early houses to the later buildings. We can delve into Meier’s poetic, or rather his construction of form as a systemic complex vision using four key concepts: volume, excavation, surface and structure. From the interpretative standpoint, they can be considered consecutive in the design process.

The dynamic massing updates Le Corbusier’s jeu savant of simple volumes (cube, cylinder, pyramid) in a dynamic way. The movement of the volumes grouped and rotated in relation to the ground or horizon, as in the New Harmony Athenaeum, defines a kind of three-dimensional origin of the work. This comes first. It sums up the work’s generators deduced from the relationship to the site. It is not mimetic; rather, it takes on the setting’s lines of force as elements generating the building’s interior. The Getty Center is a paradigm.

We are supported by the clarity of the master’s sketches that accompany his schemes. They testify to the careful work done to interpret and create forms. At first glace, the Barcelona Contemporary Art Museum might seem to ignore the site. However the wide, sunny, open plaza side of the structure differs from that overlooking the alleyway next to the historical Casa de Caritat. They provide a diverse counterpoint for the dynamic of the surfaces of the opposite fronts. Like the ISLIP Federal Courthouse in New York and the Barcelona CCCB, the excavation of the interior space engenders a sort of negative volume that brings part of the external public space inside.

This isn’t completely original and Corbu utilised it for his matchless interiors, but it is done masterfully and allows the architect to arrange and step a complex volume. Here too Meier’s designs are quite explicit: there are two kinds. A substantially cylindrical volume, which is excavated and hence negative, generates a vertical interior landscape defining levels and positions. The same volume cut in half on the facade and the exterior creates a semicircle, which seems to have entranced both Meier and Kahn. In the latter, there is a straight pedestrian walkway generating a kind of internal reply to the facade and the external adjacent space. It is transferred inside and generates a sort of vertical canyon (CCCB).

Meier’s surfaces are never explicit, but they are never pan de verre either, although panels do have some importance in his structures. In his career he seems to have constructed a sort of typology of building material and facade structure, corresponding nicely to his architectural language. He went from the primitive white-painted wood panel reminiscent of the American balloon frame to glass and enamelled aluminium, plus the recent Roman exception of white cement. The facade panelling mirrors the modular principle of measuring and proportion of the whole building and mirrors its relationship to light and shade.

The new Jubilee Church is testimony to the attention paid to the relationship between sunlight and artificial light. The facade’s modulation and materiality becomes a diaphragm. During the daytime it absorbs and measures daylight while at the same time gathering shadows, and at night it reflects its interior urban landscape outwards. During the day the elevation of the Barcelona CCCB mirrors the square (without the ‘burning’ effects of much US architecture) and the surrounding buildings. At night it shows its bright interior to the dark. Moreover, the facade is never flat as it has several planes.

It features vertical and horizontal structural members, and diaphragms like louvers, while its structural elements go inside. So it boasts a complex game of planes and spatial hierarchies. This is also shown by the Neugebauer House in Naples, Florida and the centrifugal explosion of the Visitor Center at the Crystal Cathedral in Orange Grove, California. The part played by the structure, above all in the plans and sections, is to ‘square up’ the system of systems mentioned by Tafuri, by adjusting all the previous operations. Meier’s architecture is not in the least bit naturalistic.

It places architectural and urban culture against nature. His constructions are complex prisms made from highly artificial materials, without ever being merely high-tech. This stance makes the author differ from both the rigid leaders of bio and environmentally friendly architecture and the noble proponents of metal panels and grills, such as Koolhaas or Piano. “There’s a difference between what’s natural and what’s man-made. The minute you cut down a tree, it’s no longer organic, you have to protect it with paint or sealer, so you might as well make it what you want it to be. Architecture is not organic, it’s inert, man-made.”

The book edited by Silvio Cassarà and printed by Skira provides an easy overview of the American artist, from the New Harmony Athenaeum to the World Trade Center Proposal and minor works of the last two years. The book is nicely arranged, with a short foreword by the editor and many well-documented data sheets. Fabrizio Zanni Professor of Architecture and planning at the Milan Polytechnic

Latest News

Latest on Domus

Read more
China Germany India Mexico, Central America and Caribbean Sri Lanka Korea icon-camera close icon-comments icon-down-sm icon-download icon-facebook icon-heart icon-heart icon-next-sm icon-next icon-pinterest icon-play icon-plus icon-prev-sm icon-prev Search icon-twitter icon-views icon-instagram