The August issue of Vanity Fair – not online, of course –
runs a letter from superstar architect Charles Gwathmey, responding to an article
the magazine ran in June about Richard Meier’s Perry
I was disappointed by the article’s inadvertent association of Richard Meier
with complaints about the construction and condition of the buildings. What
may be lost on those not familiar with the design and construction industries
is that, while an architect is responsible for the architectural design of
a project and may be in a position to advise the owner of observed contractor
deviations from the design, he or she has limited control over the quality
of construction, limited power to require that construction defects be remedied,
and absolutely no input into the maintenance of a building after construction
is completed. Therefore, it is truly a mixed blessing for well-known architects
when their names are instantly associated with any project they design, both
in the rave reviews for the quality of the design and in the frequently mixed
(or worse) reviews for the quality of the construction.
What should be clearly acknowledged is not the internal power struggle nor
what appear to be rectifiable construction and maintenance issues but, rather,
the superb architecture of the Perry Street towers.
Poor Richard Meier, having his name associated with the buildings he designed!
At the risk of sounding rather Blowhardish,
I simply don’t think you can divorce design from construction in quite as black-and-white
a fashion as Gwathmey does here.
For one thing, I simply don’t buy the idea that a megastar like Meier would
be little more than a disposable freelancer on his first major New York project.
To infer from Gwathmey’s letter, Meier saw the site plan, designed the buildings,
handed over the blueprints, and left the project in the hands of the developer,
his job having been done. Sound like any big-name architect you’ve ever heard
of? Me neither.
What’s more, Meier designed a pair of structures which ostentatiously pushed
the envelope of what New York contractors are used to building. If the building
trades in this city are used to throwing up things like 90
Clinton Street, then you simply can’t expect them to put together a state-of-the-art
curtain wall without any kind of quality guarantee. Architecture is an applied
art: if you’re going to ask millions of dollars for an apartment, then you have
to be sure that it’s going to be first-rate in the real world, not simply on
paper. Meier and the developer both have a responsibility here.
Gwathmey also raises the question of what "superb architecture" is,
exactly. In his mind, it’s clearly something divorced from construction, or
the experience of actually living in the building. He’s surely wrong on that
front: a residential building can’t be admitted into the architectural pantheon
if its residents dislike living there.
If Meier had designed something which was within the abilities of the developer
to build; if he had designed something which people liked to live in; if he
had designed something which didn’t stick out like a sore thumb in terms of
the architecture along the Greenwich Village stretch of the Hudson riverfront;
and if he had designed something which still, all the same, elicited the respect
and awe of passersby – then I would confer the status of "superb
architecture" on the Perry Street towers. A good architect can sit in his
studio and design something iconic; a great one can do so while working within
the host of real-world limitations that New York City uniquely provides.