April 1, 2003
Richard & Me
Our columnist’s love for Richard Meier’s new buildings downtown is complicated by a little personal history.
I really like Richard Meier’s new Perry Street apartments. The two petite 15-story towers flanking the mouth of that Greenwich Village lane are such a wonderful addition to the brickscape of the Manhattan riverfront that they might even point to a new vision for living in New York City. They pass the prima-donna test. If multiplied up and down West Street, the boulevard they front, the towers would evoke not the formal strivings of a world’s fair but the replicable substance of a new vernacular—bare concrete cores pulled to the rear, engaging clean, adjectival “Meier” volumes framed in white aluminum and glass: urbanity reified.
Even the things I initially faulted have grown on me. The fat white frame that collects the lesser lines of each building’s main facade is, at second glance, a regional gesture—it gives the buildings presence from across the river—and the overscale, sickly greenish frosted-glass panels that serve as balcony rails fatten the thin exteriors at just the right spot to improve their aspect for passing motor-ists. Yes, the Perry Street Apartments are good, almost good enough to make me forget the history that had me doubting them in the first place.
Five or six years ago I worked on a project with Meier’s office. I had been hired by the American arm of Adshel, a British company that designs and maintains advertising-supported street furniture. My job was to write a proposal for a New York City-wide contract to build coordinated bus shelters, pay toilets, information kiosks, and other structures that could display a backlit advertising panel and provide in turn the mollification of public amenity. The heart of Meier’s job was to design the shelters that would replace the existing models while matching their proven five-borough firmitas.
New York, of course, needs a program of ad-plastered street furniture as much as it needs a hole in the head (or the Olympics); the idea, born in Paris, always seems to bring with it the waft of that city’s barely suppressed municipal fascism. Fortunately the scheme was scuttled by a mercurial Giuliani one Saturday not long after the submission deadline in a single-sentence aside while he took some questions on schools policy: Oh, that billion-dollar project I initiated which has absorbed millions of dollars from a host of global corporations hawking the work of dozens of the world’s most celebrated architects? Never mind. So the streets remained haphazardly furnished. But I took away from that campaign a deeper understanding of Meier’s work. And, naturally, a marked prejudice against it.
One of Meier’s modern heroes would have God residing in the details, but for Richard that is often the Devil’s lair. Take the bus shelters, thousands of which would have dotted the city had the political dice rolled otherwise. He designed two lines: “Metropolis” (a somewhat hunkering meditation on New York industrial typology in battleship gray aluminum and tempered glass) and “New Amsterdam” (despite the reams I wrote about the close fit between that shelter design and the historical spirit of its namesake city, it can be found realized today only on the streets of Washington, D.C., where its painfully contextual arched form evokes not the cast-iron ladies of Soho—mea culpa—but the barrel-vaulted halls of federal power). Both designs shared the same Achilles’ heel: in drawings they rose from a perfect surface, a single thick black line, assumed to be a graphic convention through dozens of meetings among the players in this anxious, accelerated proposal process. It was in fact an ideologue’s pass at confronting the real. When it was time to advance the design to the next stage—the proposal required a fat technical submission—we discovered that no allowance had been made for the imperfections of the planet itself. In this case, the hard fact that every city sidewalk—even that exceedingly rare one poured over a level stretch—tilts. They tilt toward the curb to shed water. All of them. And because of the nearly 12-inch width of the shelters’ square legs—a decorative width, it might be said, since it far surpassed all necessity—there was no way to bring a “Richard Meier for Adshel” shelter cleanly down to Earth.
It was only a false cleanliness that had seduced us all those wasted weeks! And more dirt would soon be found. Around this time (hour 11) it was discovered that the cantilevered version of the “Metropolis” shelter—everyone’s favorite because it cut a sharp profile like an angry Helvetica “1”—required six-foot-deep concrete foundation piers. Eyes widened at the morning meeting—none more than those of the late great Stephen Feinberg, founding president of Adshel Inc., street-tested installer of 3,000 existing city shelters and long-ago winner of a Westinghouse Science Prize for some precocious work in shortwave radio. “What about the vaults?” I remember him asking. “What about the vaults?” Meier’s uber-correct ground plane, alas, did not account for that other commonplace of the city’s terrain: buildings whose basement hollows toe out to the street itself. Exit “Metropolis,” limping. Call in the engineers.
The flatland solipsism of Meier & Co. was naturally on my mind when I next got close to one of his projects: the frosty white Dallas home and gallery of art collector Howard Rachofsky, in front of which in 1999, a large deliberately dissonant (warm Corten steel) Robert Irwin landscape had been prominently installed. My bitter amazement at the folly of Meier’s shelters probably accounted for some of the glee with which I welcomed that intrusion. The same skepticism diminished an otherwise moving late-night visit to the ark of his United States Courthouse in Islip, Long Island (the closest the firm has drifted in years to the more muscular and affecting Corbusian pole of Meier’s Mies-and-Corbu Great Father clinch); and it echoed, even, through a much-belated trip up to the Getty Center itself. That great acropolitan self-portrait impressed me, but for the same reasons as Herzog and de Meuron’s Tate Modern renovation in London: the majesty of its setting. Why can’t an architect as obviously talented as Meier relax now and then and, as Eminem has put it, flip the script? Why not drop the reliance on equivocal square grids, say—not everywhere, but where they do no good? At the Getty their ubiquity is comical. Still, I loved that last Masada prow above the cactus garden, where the frisson of reaching a precipice by stepping down from the safety of a mesa is amplified by the there-but-for-the-grace-of-God relief one gets looking out at the Los Angeles smog ceiling and down to its unwitting replenishers on the static freeway below. All of that architectural energy spent—all of those turgid moves—and nothing there comes close to rivaling the air.
Which brings us back to Perry Street. Those buildings have done—using just the right Meierisms—what the Getty could not do with all of them: they make the whole city look clean. Richard’s modern forebears would be pleased. But not, most likely, Feinberg, no matter how flawlessly the little towers met the ground. For some people, the great need to be good all the time.