Interview with Richard Meier | The Plan
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Interview with Richard Meier

Richard Meier & Partners Architects

Interview with Richard Meier
By Nicola Leonardi -

Nicola Leonardi - Your way of designing architecture has remained constant down the years. Your modernist approach has spanned many trends: post-modernism, de-constructivism, high and low-tech. If you had to describe your approach to contemporary architecture, how would you define it?
Richard Meier - I believe that architecture is part of a continuum in that we cannot ‘not’ recognize what’s happened before, and what we do today is related to the history of architecture. But it doesn’t need to look like what was there in the past; it has to be part of the present. I’d like to think of our architecture as being contemporary, meaning that it’s related to life and human scale today, to the way in which we live, to the context in which we build today and not to some ideas about the past. In all good architecture there’s one common denominator: the relationship of space to the human scale. No matter whose work you look at over the last centuries - whether it’s Borromini, Bernini, Bramante, Alvar Aalto, Michelangelo, Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright or Louis Kahn - it’s always about the quality and the scale of the spaces you move through, and how the individual human being relates to the scale of the spaces.

N. L. -  The first thing people say about Richard Meier’s architecture is that it’s white. White is your signature. I have read the conversation you had with your children on colour perception and what your favourite colour is. What does white mean for you, in your life and in your architecture?
R. M. - As you can see, I wear a white shirt to begin with! Whiteness really has a number of different aspects to it. Architecture is the making of space and that space is defined by opaque and transparent surfaces, by linear and planar elements, by openness and closure. All these things are elements of architecture, and the whiteness clarifies the differences between openness and closure, between solidity and transparency, for me in a clearest way. It defines the difference between linear and planar elements, the separation of skin and structure. The whiteness makes that come alive. The second aspect has to do with architecture as being manmade. It’s static. We make a building; it doesn’t change or grow over time. Nature changes during the day and the seasons, and the whiteness of the buildings helps to reflect the difference between that which is manmade and that which is natural. It helps us to perceive the natural that’s going on all around us in the way that architecture reflects nature.

N. L. - Your projects range from private luxury residences to huge public spaces and museums. How does your approach differ when designing a house or a public complex?
R. M. - Generally, the houses that we do are free standing in the landscape. They are objects that one inhabits. They’re related to climate, location and client but rarely do they have a physical context in relation to an urban environment in the way that a museum would be located. So their physical context is orientation, wind, view, topography. In a public work, such as the museums, there’s always a different context to deal with - a different physical, social and political context. And all these are factors when thinking about the design. Museums are for different kinds of collections, so the spaces vary. There are small scale spaces for small scale objects, large scale spaces for larger scale objects, and also the idea of promenade: how we move through the buildings, experience the spaces but also experience what’s outside. So there’s a relationship between the building and the city. In that way, the building belongs to the city and is part of its life. Sometimes people come to a museum not even to look at works of art but for the social life, which is also extremely important. All these things go into one’s thinking about the making of a museum.

N. L. - There can be no quality architecture without a good client. Looking back over the years and the geographical locations, what were the differences in your and your clients’ approach on some of your most important private residences such as the Douglas House back in the Seventies on the East Coast; the 2008 Malibu House on the West Coast, the Handsmooth House in the U.K.; and the Chinese Tjanjin Villa project that seems to float on water.
R. M. - Every time I go in a school of architecture and give a lecture to the students and I show slides of our residential projects, I myself am amazed at how many of them are on the water. It just happens that way! The clients choose the site; I don’t choose the site. Water creates an openness, a vastness and a priority of direction, but also helps to reflect the colour and the change in nature in a way that an inland site doesn’t do.
Every client’s different. In some cases when I first meet with a potential client – and it’s usually a man and a woman who come and talk with me – I say: “OK, now, which of you is going to be the spokesperson ?”. And the two look at each other, and she says ‘him’, and he says ‘her’. It’s interesting, in some cases it’s the woman who takes the initiative and in some cases it’s the man, you never know. But it’s rarely the two of them talking at the same time. They’ve sort of worked it out between themselves in terms of what they want and how they want to express it. And one of them generally expresses it to me. And I find that’s good. I don’t want to get in the middle of the discussion. I say: “You work it out and then you tell me!” For that reason I’ve always had very good relationships with clients and it’s always been a very clear one.

N. L. - New York is your city. For many years leading contemporary architects have found it quite difficult to work in Manhattan. Only in the last decade have New York’s developers seemed to have fully understood that quality avant-garde architecture, if not signature architecture, is of benefit to the real estate business. Your Charles and Perry Street development is a perfect example. Do you think the crisis has made quality a must? Do you think there is a much stronger perception both in the public and private sectors that without good architecture, there can be no good business?
R. M. - New York City has been an extremely difficult place for good architecture in the last part of the 20th and early part of the 21st Century. It’s just that developers think that it costs more to hire a good architect. It doesn’t cost more but that’s the perception. When we did Perry Street and Charles Street it changed that perception and made developers see that you could do it and build for the same money and in fact get more in return because of the demand for good quality architecture. And therefore it created the possibility for many young architects to do work downtown that would never have been possible before. So I’m very proud that this led the way and that today, in many areas of the city, smaller projects are being done by good quality architects as a result of the Perry Street and Charles Street buildings.

N. L. - You have been involved in the major mixed-use complex development program in Newark, New Jersey. Called the Teachers Village, it comprises social and budget housing and will encompass 7 new buildings and the restoration of an existing structure. This is a strong answer to those who describe Richard Meier as the architect of the wealthy. Yet you have a history of being interested in subsidized housing projects back in NY and in the Sixties. How come you took on this project now and what has been your idea?
R. M. - I did affordable housing in the Bronx in the Sixties, which remains to this day low-income housing. The reason I got involved in Newark was because a client, Nicholas Berggruen, who we are doing a building in Tel Aviv for, came to me and said: “When someone decides to do affordable housing, would you be interested?” Of course we’d be interested. This is right in the heart of Newark – it’s not a place you’d walk around in alone at night! But I think that when this housing is built it’s going to change that area substantially. It’s low-income, affordable housing, with a charter school as part of it. What we are trying to do, to the best of our ability, is just to give the most space in each unit that we can afford to given the budget and create exterior communal space for everybody: a park, a place to be and create a community. So it’s not just housing; it’s a relationship between the housing, the park spaces and the city.

N. L. - The Getty Center is widely recognised as Richard Meier’s masterpiece. To anyone who might think it’s too big a project to keep under control and too complex to maintain the human scale you have always aimed for in your projects, I would invite him to go and see, or rather “feel” the place. I was there this past summer with my family and would like to thank you for the gift you have given us. The Getty Center is a magical place set into the landscape, a sequence of monumental spaces that haven’t lost their human scale. You do get lost, but feel relaxed, perceiving an almost intangible atmosphere of perfection. With the simple geometries of straight and curved lines and the use of few materials, you have built complex volumes, courtyards and gardens. How did you create all this?
R. M. - Thank you very much for your perception. It’s true, children love it. It captures their imagination. It’s like a game of hide and seek where you go to one place and find something, and then you want to find the next thing. It’s almost as if there were clues as you go around. That’s what I wanted: surprises, intimate spaces, open public spaces, a relationship between the building and the gardens. I wanted the gardens to be as friendly as the buildings were. I wanted something for everybody. I think everyone who goes there comes away feeling that they have really learned something and enjoyed themselves. So many people come to me and say: “I went to the Getty; I spent all day there but I didn’t have time to go into the museum!” And I think that’s it. But the way in which we did it frankly was to begin with very small drawings, diagrams that were two ridges - two hills and a valley in between, more or less. It seemed to me that the ridge on the San Diego freeway side was the public side, the downtown side, and the ridge on the Brentwood side, where the residences are, that looks out to the Pacific is a much more private side. So the Museum’s on the public side and the Center for the History of Art and the Humanities is on the private side and in between is a garden that belongs to both. And it developed from there. The basic idea came really from the site and the context. We had to push and pull the land a little bit but the basic form of the land is now where the buildings are, and it sort of developed from there. So we are sensitive to the topography and also to the views out and tried to maximise the uniqueness of the site, which is phenomenal.

N. L. - Your office is developing projects almost everywhere in the world including, to name only few, the Liberty Plaza in Mexico City, the W Retreat still in Mexico, the Rothschild Tower in Tel Aviv, Israel plus others in Europe. What do you have to do to stop yourself becoming an “industry” of architecture, to maintain a keen focus on research and keep alive the poetry in your work?
R. M. - It sounds like a lot of projects, and it is. But they are at different stages. One is under construction; one is sort of about to start construction; one is in design. Now we don’t have anything to begin – I wish we did. Some will be finished in one, two, three, four years. So they are kind of spread out not only around the world but over time, and I think what keeps them all together is that they are all focused in their design, on their context, on where they are, how they differ. The climate in Tel Aviv is very different from the climate in Hamburg, and therefore the idea of building, the way in which we use sunscreens, the way in which we take into consideration all the elements – the Platinum certificates that most the clients are happy to have these days. Every building has to be ecologically sensitive today in ways that perhaps they weren’t 20-30 years ago. All this makes certain elements of the design. You sort of move on, work on sunscreens in a certain way, and you say: “OK, that works here but it’s not going to work there”.

N. L. -  You’ve built two small but major projects in Italy: the Jubilee Church and the controversial Ara Pacis in Rome. The huge development project for the University of Bologna is also yours. In recent years you’ve been involved in more than one major tourist development in Jesolo, a town that is undergoing complete transformation. The Italcementi ITC Laboratories are on site now close to Bergamo. How would you describe designing and building architecture in Italy? What are the main differences you’ve found compared to other countries?
R. M. - There are big differences in building in Italy. One is time. There is New York time, there is Tokyo time and then there is Italian time. Ara Pacis took twelve years because it was a political football. But the politics were not about the building; the politics were about politics. One person was for, the next person was against it. The next person after was for. And we went from Rutelli, to Berlusconi, to Veltroni; fortunately we had Rutelli and Veltroni because otherwise it would never have happened. Because it was all about making noise at a certain point. You know, someone came and said: “We love the building, but it’s on the wrong site!” “What do you mean ‘it’s on the wrong site?’, that’s where the Ara Pacis is! How can it to be on the wrong site?” Sgarbi came here to New York to visit me and said: “You have to change the project”. He had announced in Rome: “I’m going to convince Richard Meier to change the project”. He came here, we sat down; we talked. I said: “What change do you have in mind?” He said: “I don’t care, you just have to make a change”. I said “Why?”  “Because I said you would do so”. I said: “I have no reason to make a change.” So he went back to Italy and said: “Richard Meier is very stubborn. He would not to make a change”. With the church it was different. I won a competition. It took twelve years because the Vatican doesn’t spend a lot of money, so they wanted everything donated. So I’d say: “Here are the drawings.” “Well, we’ll have to wait. We have to find someone.” Fortunately they found very good people and we were all involved, but it took time.
Italcementi, they really are good. They’re going very quickly, very efficiently. We had these huge, multi-ton pieces that they stopped the highway for to transport from the factory to the site. They knew what to do and they did it.
Jesolo was good. Jesolo again was slow, because the people involved were young. They’d never really ever done anything like this. They were great but it was step by step, and also the financing was difficult.
Bologna actually is doing fairly well. The LA office is working on Bologna. We were originally involved in the master plan, then we weren’t involved anymore, but now we’re involved again.

N. L. - Being an architect has always been difficult and it certainly has not become any easier in recent years for the upcoming generation. How do you see the prospects for architecture tomorrow? What would you do if you were to receive your Bachelor of Architecture today and become an architect in 2011?
R. M. - If I were to receive my Bachelor of Architecture now, I would stay in the school because this is a difficult time for architects. There aren’t a lot of jobs here or any place. And you know, another two years of school doesn’t hurt. I’d tell all the young architects: stay in school. But there are lots of things that architects can do. Most architects sort of perceive the profession as individual practitioners or large offices with large groups of people, but architects can contribute to society in public service in a major way. Some of the best political leaders have some education in architecture. Because it gives them an understanding of community, of participation, of involvement, of how important the physical structure is to the wellbeing of the world, and they can do something about that. Public service is a good place and it could be at national level, at a city level, at any level. Then there are also publications that are so important. If you write well, think well, you can contribute as a person involved in publications on architecture. So I think there are many areas outside of private practice that one can involve oneself in and make a contribution to culture and society.

New York City, January 6th 2011

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