Gwathmey on Meier

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

Street towers:

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.

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7 Responses to Gwathmey on Meier

  1. geoff says:

    exactly what do you know of the ‘real world limitations that NYC uniquely provides’ in relation to the construction industry felix?

    gwathemy does do a bit of architectural whining, but certainly speaks from truth. you cannot pin the quality of the construction on the architect any more than you can pin the quality of a big mac

    on ronald mcdonald.

    the litany of contractual relationships that would put meier to blame for poor construction technique surely wasn’t covered in vf, was only suggested at by gwathmey, and is either unknown to or ignored by yourself.

    speaking from experience- the ability (or desire) of a developer and his representative contractors to build quality things in our fair city is about on par with what one would expect from a gang of chimpanzees with sharpened sticks. to actually get something built close to correct in nyc takes about twice as long as it does anywhere else and costs about 5-10 times more (and that is for close to correct). the hotel on rivington comes to mind.

    for meier to build a building that could be constructed in nyc to the level of quality intended from the start without ‘pushing the envelope of what nyc contractors are used to building’- it would have to be designed as a dome tent (any other shape would surely be installed on its side). forget curtainwalls, clever metalwork, masonry, tolerances less then 5″, etc. etc. etc. it simply isn’t feasible to build anything but shanties in nyc.

    was meier retained for construction management? did he actually have control over retainage and payment certification that would allow some levereage over the quality of construction? did he certify all the materials & systems or were substitutions made by the contractor at the behest of the developer in order to increase the roi by a couple of pennies per sf? was he the design architect or the architect of record (was it his stamp on the dwgs)? did his office develop the details? are these common problems in big name development projects? the libeskind debacle comes to mind and all we have seen of that project is some pictures and models.

    in the end is perry street superb architecture?… no. would it be superb architecture if it had all been built with a sense of quality?… no. it is simply a style of housing (open space, lots of glass) common in most parts of the civilized world, but sadly absent as a recognizable percentage of the housing stock in nyc. at its best, a recognized name shows new yorkers that they don’t have to live in high rise caves- there is a different way to live (think gehry and bilbao- whatever you think of the building- it changed things). at its worst- a developer built a sub standard product that people bought into anyway for much more than it was worth- yawn….

    a little more research… a little less propping up a rant with details that you seem quite fuzzy on.

  2. Felix says:

    Geoff, I think you did a much better job than I ever could of detailing exactly what the ‘real world limitations that NYC uniquely provides’ are. My point is that Meier should have known them at least as well as you. If he then ignored them and decided that all he was going to do was supply a design and leave the rest up to an unknown developer, then that does not reflect well on him at all.

  3. Michelle says:

    You know, Geoff probably can’t even bring him self to comment on that one. Drawings are not just turned over to the developer. And if you think Meier’s office just threw up their hands and moved on to the next project, I highly doubt it. I’m sure his team were slamming their heads into walls, screaming at the contractor, screaming and the developer all the while Meier is on the phone with his lawyer, freaking out.

    If a developer hires an architect for a project, the architect sees the project through to completion, down to the punch list. Architects have insane liability insurance in case something does go wrong with the design – so between the architects and the engineers, no body wants a disaster. There are fights going on every day. And this might have been one of those typical situations where the developer wins. Developers are the bottom line here, they pay for the construction and want to pay as little as possible.

    From what you and Gwathmey have written here, I’m with the architects.

  4. John Lumea says:

    You write:

    “…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.”

    Actually, Libeskind fairly leaps to mind.

  5. says:

    And please put the Bilbao thing to rest. Who has been there–twice? If anything, Gehry damns Meier even more: Bilbao was proof of concept for Gehry’s attention to the design-to-construction process, precisely what kept Disney Hall–which predated it, design-wise–from getting built for so long.

    And this is all moot when the client is a residential spec developer in a boom market. Perry St Towers aren’t the only shittily built “luxury” apartments in NYC these days, just the whitest. (cf. 515 Park, The Empire on E78, practically all of Tribeca) There’s no way Meier couldn’t have known or been complicit in this.

  6. CTF says:

    Trust me on this — the Perry Street towers are quality buildings. And despite what the architectural community would have you to believe otherwise, the evaluation of architecture must come from having to experience it, not just view the published images or prose that feature it.

    The skinny: The general contractor was under the gun due to several delays and had a schedule to maintain — the personalities and cost of the project alone was enough to get him to take a hardline. Unfortuneately, even though the plumbing contractor went backrupt while the ninth floor was being poured (cast in place concrete slabs), the GC continued to pour the remaining floor slabs above while single-handedly deciding to retrofit a floor drainage system afterwards. The custom curtain-wall system is not of faulty design — it was scrutinized by Meier’s firm, examined and reviewed by independent and professional curtain-wall consultants, and was subject to performance tests by the curtainwall contractor.

    The GC fucked up. Meier can rest easy because the CDs, the shop drawings, and the architectural field inspections were top-shelf. It is simple as that, but in an attempt to conduct oneself with “good form,” the office isn’t pointing fingers publically and looking to implicate. The situation is being handled professionally. Fortunately for your bank of blog knowledge, I have a different take — I am not with the firm, but have direct knowledge of the project.

    And before the next time you read something, whether it be an article in Vanity Fair magazine, or a reputable newspaper, please demonstrate a fair sense of reason — Do you really think that Meier is enjoying his status from cutting corners or being laissez-faire about the design / construction process? Get a clue Felix Salmon!


  7. says:

    I’m sure Meier’s pissed, just like he was pissed at Robert Irwin’s landscaping or Thierry Despont’s faux-coco rooms polluting his necropolis on a hill in LA.

    But as even CTF admits, ‘mistakes were made.’ Meier’s design demanded execution and investment that the developer–and the contractors and the market–could not withstand. Is architectural ‘quality’ the same are real estate ‘quality,’ i.e., resale value? Schrager’s all-Starck apartment sitting unsold for years, Farnsworth, Paul Rudolph on Beekman, Perry St: maybe Meierian Architecture can only survive outside of the realities of the world.

    Third time’s the charm, though, right? I guess we’ll see how much better it gets when Meier dictates freakin’ EVERYTHING in the third tower.

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