PRINT November 1977

Richard Meier’s Architecture of Purity and Possibility

RICHARD MEIER CAUGHT THE ATTENTION of the art world once more by reappearing on the museum scene with two intriguing installations last winter. At Cooper Union his white architectural models (of constructed as well as unrealized projects) engaged in a coherent dialogue. His darkened labyrinth entitled Metamorphosis, at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum’s inaugural show,1 functioned as a compelling giant anagram game of literary conception: letters aligned in endless permutations to form flexible walls and ceilings of words. The release of Meier’s own documentary book2 and the recent completion of his most impressive executed work, the Bronx Developmental Center (1970–77), mark this as a fitting time for sensible consideration of his achievement over the last decade.

Until the early 1960s, Meier complemented his focus on architecture with serious painting and collage-making. He and Frank Stella studied painting with Stephen Greene. Meier used Stella’s studio, and they submitted a joint entry to Philadelphia’s monumental fountain competition in 1964. Meier organized the “Recent American Synagogue Architecture” exhibition for the Jewish Museum in 1963. Concerned with the lack of innovative quality in contemporary synagogues, Meier invited Barnett Newman to develop for the exhibition his synagogue project based upon a baseball field, whereupon Newman’s single-minded intensity influenced Meier and convinced him to pursue architecture exclusively. Meier consequently abandoned the dual model of Le Corbusier as an equally committed architect and painter. At that point, Meier’s collages (based on grids incorporating abstracted letters and other found elements) became a side-line engaged in sporadically as pleasurable investigations.

Among Meier’s earliest executed works in New York, however, were projects having to do with contemporary art, especially the Stella studio and apartment (1965), a loft renovation for William Rubin (1966), and his significant recycling of the Bell Telephone Laboratories into Westbeth artists’ housing (1967–70). Meier’s intimate involvement with the modern tradition in painting naturally filtered into his approach to architecture as the conscious creation of environmentally scaled “high art” objects elevated to a maximum of coherent clarity.

Meier’s evocative yet extreme isolation of his residences from their context parallels the object status of Frank Stella’s canvases. This sense of disjunction derives in part from Corbusier’s polemic. Corbusier regarded geometry as the “response of reason to nature”3 and determined that his grandly imposing forms be grounded on Cartesian logic. Corbusier retained the landscape as an element of surprise that expanded in a perspectival view, as in a painting, beyond the windows of his interiors. Meier continues this juxtaposition of nature with the manmade construct in his starkly white Smith House in Darien, Connecticut (1965–67). There the entry facade and a solid fireplace aligned behind it block the enticing view of nature beyond. Only when one has penetrated the living room’s glass pavilion is the extraordinary site transparently revealed. Joseph Rykwert succinctly sums up Meier as “a maker of objects whose power is in the obsessive elegance of their cut, in their cool though exemplary and somehow didactic detachment from their surroundings.”4

A roster of Meier’s residences is an honor roll of formalist achievement. Possessing a palatial quality and scale, his houses clearly present supremely structured sequences based on structural differentiations. Meier merges two of Corbusier’s residential prototypes with dynamic equilibrium in his Smith, Douglas, and Shamberg residences to emphasize an opposition of public and private realms. This novel juxtaposition derives from Corbusier’s two canonic means of organizing architectonic space. Meier transforms the columniated structure of Corbusier’s Dom-ino House project (1914–15) with its insistent horizontality into the double- and triple-height glass pavilions that serve as the public living rooms. He also reserved the paradigm of Corbusier’s load-bearing Citrohan House (1920–27), with its vertical emphasis, for the private areas (bedrooms) and service areas (the kitchen, bathrooms and storage rooms). The discrete functions of these areas are expressed in closed, cellular forms. Meier “accentuat[es] the importance of the interface between the Citrohan and Dom-ino components”5 by inserting the main circulation route between the two structures.

All of Meier’s residences can be read as a critical response to Corbusier and certain other modernist sources. He takes recognizable elements from the Purist tradition—and from his own previous work—and combines these forms into a “defamiliarized” synthesis. He also performs a species of self-criticism on his own former projects. For instance, his Douglas House, built in Harbor Springs, Mich. (1971–73), is a serial variation upon his earlier Smith House.

While Meier is primarily known for the neo-Corbusian rhetoric of his residences, the systemic and urbanistic implications of his public commissions have led to a subtle stylistic transformation. The formal shift in these largely unexecuted projects is akin, say, to the transition in James Stirling’s work from his History Faculty Building at Cambridge University (1964) to his Olivetti Training School in Haslemere, England (1969).

Including residences for 380 mentally retarded patients, outpatient clinics, classrooms, and recreational facilities, Meier’s recently completed Bronx Developmental Center heralds the emergence of a new phase in his work. The modular construction of the industrial aluminum panel system (with windows punched out in the factory) in part initiated the stylistic shift. At the same time, the center simultaneously synthesizes and refines the concerns that permeate his other unexecuted large-scale projects, from the Fredonia Health and Physical Education Building (1968) to his Olivetti Dormitory in Tarrytown, N.Y., and Olivetti’s Headquarters Building projects for Fairfax, Va. (1971).

The site plan for Meier’s existing Monroe Developmental Center in Rochester, N.Y. (1969–74), acted as a loose, less refined precedent for the Bronx Developmental Center’s layout. The Monroe model juxtaposed residential, educational, and administrative wings across large, discontinuous courtyards. At Monroe, as well as at the Bronx Center, the therapeutic environment for the mentally retarded was conceived as an enclosed, self-reliant—almost monastic—community.

The Center’s adaptation to its triangular site is highly dexterous, considering the blighted surroundings, and his modification of the periphery of the site by a series of mounds suggests Meier’s extensive control and vision. Actually, the introverted nature of the parti here derives from the cloistered paradigm of Corbusier’s Convent of La Tourette (1957–60),6 just as Meier’s general insistence on frontal, vertical layers derives from Corbusier’s Villa Stein at Garches (1927), a cubic prototype.7 Then the center progresses coherently in a modulated series of vertical layers from a support services slab, through the varied contours of courtyards, and finally, to the upwardly wedging forms of four pinwheeling residential pavilions.

In sharp distinction to the monolithic entry pavilion which acts as an anonymous protective screen, the courtyards provide a heightened, idealized environment filled with semi-circular amphitheatres as well as sculptural slides, sandpits, and fountains. As the expanded outdoor living room of this extensive communal house, this radiant center (bisected by a crystalline circulation spine) offers the possibility of a paradisaical garden. The whole scheme possesses an overall clarity despite its complex underlying program. A precise coding of wall panels and fenestration permits the immediate identification of the minute integers in this mighty equation.

Inside, the color is remarkably varied with a palette of 45 hues ranging from the primaries to deeply intense tonalities and pastels. Not a matter of functional significance, color here is in the service of intuition and joy, applied as it is indeterminately to walls, corners, and built-in furniture. The color modulates from active tones on the lower floors to less intense pastels on the upper levels flooded with natural light, achieving an extreme of nuance and unexpected contrast. Meier’s palette combines echoes from Corbusier with overtones of David Novros. The colored walls project an ethereal glow that results in a spatial, rather than planar, sense of color.

Meier’s most recent project, the Atheneum in New Harmony, Ind., begun in 1975 and still under construction, is a tourist center as well as an arena of initiation to this ordered utopian community. Its pastoral setting and relatively simple program provoked Meier’s most expansive, complex work yet in response. The expected rectilinear clarity does not regulate this design. For although the building responds formally to the orthogonal grid of New Harmony, it also answers the contour of the bending Wabash River, adjacent to the site. Besides, the complex is oriented slightly off the established grid. An “event” by the river’s edge, the Atheneum extends a curved facade as a watery metaphor. Since Meier discovered with his Hoffman House in East Hampton (1966–67) that a small project cannot tolerate equally strong orthogonal and diagonal grids, he reinforces the orthogonal grid here, for clarity. A rotational circulation path directs the visitors from historical exhibitions to actual vistas from the prowlike terraces, while shafts of natural light penetrate the circulation spines in a Wrightian manner. Here movement is the generator mediating the juxtaposition of volume with plane.

Meier’s structural rigor, his formal eloquence, his shrewdly intuitive sense of color, and his responsiveness to social need make him a builder of actuality as well as a purist poet. He has shown amazing alacrity at solving social problems without sacrificing his well-known formal eloquence. The consequent thickening of attention on the rhetorical, as well as the elemental, aspect of architectural “language” has resulted in highly responsive, architectonic works.



1. “MAN transFORMS: Aspects of Design,” (October 7–February 6, 1977).

2. Richard Meier Architect: Buildings and Projects 1966–1976. Oxford University Press.

3. Stanislaus von Moos, Le Corbusier: l’architecte et son mythe, Horizons de France, 1971, p. 291.

4. Joseph Rykwert, “The Very Personal Work of Richard Meier & Associates,” Architectural Forum, March 1972, p. 36.

5. Mario Gandelsonas, “Analysis: Richard Meier’s Work,” Architecture and Urbanism, April 1976, p. 86.

6. The site condition as well as the original programmatic requirements dictated a self-sufficient community. A current trend in the mental health profession toward normalization rather than institutionalization questions this concept.

7. Meier has intentionally selected the prototype Corbusier found the most difficult as well as the most spiritually satisfying.