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Whiteness is All

Richard Meier’s architecture

Jubilee Church, Rome, Italy, 1996–2003
Jubilee Church, Rome, Italy, 1996–2003
The Atheneum, New Harmony, Indiana, USA, 1975- 97
The Atheneum, New Harmony, Indiana, USA, 1975- 97
If it is true that Ludwig Mies van der Rohe once said, “God is in the details,” it might be possible to say of Richard Meier’s architecture that God is in the numbers. More than any other contemporary architect, Meier has imposed a style that is almost invariably driven by grids and precisely calculated proportions. Nor are these arithmetical elements the only predictable components of his designs. And yet his work is far from being as sterile as its rigorous white demeanor might imply. Rarely completely open, Meier’s buildings are usually a symphonic arrangement of geometric volumes composed of solids, voids, and generous glazing alternating with closed surfaces. Closed on the entry side, open to the ocean or the landscape, separating private and public spaces, double height and more where the design allows, or rather imposes, Meier’s houses announce but do not summarize his approach to larger buildings. Smooth glazed or white enameled panels alternate, too, with louvered, articulated façades, not according to the architect’s whim, but rather in function to the program and the specific site.

Why is white, the absence of color, Richard Meier’s choice? His own words answer this question best, explain the link between his method and his fundamental concerns, and betray a poetic nature: “White is the ephemeral emblem of perpetual movement.White is always present but never the same, bright and rolling in the day, silver and effervescent under the full moon of New Year’s Eve. Between the sea of consciousness and earth’s vast materiality lies this ever-changing line of white. White is the light, the medium of understanding and transformative power.”

Perhaps the most significant word in this description is not “white” but “light.” Light floods through the best of Richard Meier’s buildings, bringing constant change to his architecture. Clouds moving across the sky, the cycle of the seasons, the arc of the sun, and the moon in the heavens, quintessential expressions of nature, transfigure his grids and white surfaces. Where there is no man-made color, the rising sun and blue sky infuse Meier’s forms with the authentic, ephemeral palette of the world. At night, artificial light makes his architecture glow from within, like a lantern in the blackness. Meier makes no pretense to design “organic” architecture, rather he willfully places his designs in a more reflective context. When asked if his use of white geometric forms might not be considered a symbolic victory over nature, he says, “No. I think that it’s really a statement of what we do as architects, that what we make is not natural. I think that the fallacy that Frank Lloyd Wright perpetrated for many years had to do with the nature of materials. He claimed to use what are called natural materials, but the minute you cut down that tree and you use it in construction, it is no longer alive, it is no longer growing, it is inert. The materials we’re using in construction are not natural, they do not change with the seasons, or with the time of day. What we make is static in its material quality. Therefore, it’s a counterpoint to nature. Nature is changing all around us, and the architecture should help reflect those changes. I think it should help intensify one’s perception of the changing colors of nature, changing colors of the day, rather than attempt to have the architecture change.”

The Atheneum, New Harmony, Indiana, USA, 1975–97
The Atheneum, New Harmony, Indiana, USA, 1975–97

Light is Life

Richard Meier, born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1934, has been one of the most consistent of contemporary architects, to a point that his stylistic choices, from white aluminum panels to nautical railings, are among the most recognizable of his profession. Beneath these surface elements, Meier’s plans continue to call on a geometric vocabulary, often based on the circle and the square. Linking plan to volume, a rigorous system of grids, even more than the choice of white cladding, constitutes the signature element of a Richard Meier building. The rigor of the design is emphasized through meticulous attention to detail, which in turn conveys an impression of quality often lacking in modern construction.

Clearly, an approach to architecture that verges on the mathematical could very easily become repetitive, or worse, inhumane. Meier has been accused of just such a lack of concern for the inhabitant, yet it seems clear that his precisionist geometric penchant is not so much an expression of formal concerns as a means to an end. That end is to create a space that is coherent, comprehensible, and functional, but more, his is a space where light is an omnipresent element that itself forms the environment, where the architecture creates a feeling of wellbeing, or of unspoken connection to the natural world, which may, at its best, attain a spiritual dimension. In the words of the architect’s friend, the artist Frank Stella, “Light is life.”

Richard Meier’s own interest in art, expressed in his sculptures or collages, but also, most significantly, in his architecture, is an important element in understanding both his approach and his built work. As the definitions of the word “art” have become more and more complex, often including forms of expression that are far less intellectually and culturally demanding than architecture, the critic is tempted to agree with Meier’s appraisal of his own work. In a different time and place, John Ruskin said, “No person who is not a great sculptor or painter can be an architect. If he is not a sculptor or painter, he can only be a builder.” When asked if he makes a fundamental distinction between architecture and art, Meier responds, “No, architecture is just as much a work of art as any other. I make a distinction between architecture and collages of course. I think that there is a problem today in the world. Architecture as an art is a forgotten art. People look at sculpture and painting, but not at architecture. Maybe it has to do with the education of art historians.”

Recent architecture and art have been marked by frequent stylistic shifts, or perhaps more accurately by dissolution of style in favor of trends or personal expressions. As the first decade of the 21st century draws to a close with no dominant aesthetic view, the very idea of style has been called into question. Architecture, once a symbol of permanence, has wavered between willful impermanence and computer-generated extravagance. Few mature creators have passed through this period without being tempted by one or another of the fashions of the times. Fewer still have set and maintained a clear course.

In fact, an architect or an artist with a style recognizable over the years is exposed to accusations of immobility or inability to change. Yet many of the most durable works of art were born of rules as strict as the unity of time and place of the classical theater. Few would argue that Shakespeare’s adherence to Elizabethan parameters prevented him from encompassing the entire range of human experience in his plays. In King Lear, the English master wrote, “Ripeness is all.” It would be overly simplistic to say that in Meier’s case whiteness is all, and yet there is a sense that the life of his art is in the light that plays across his walls or floors. It is precisely its whiteness that allows Richard Meier’s architecture to live and breath.