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Richard Meier, Architects, and Eyeglasses

January 7, 2011

In 1975, I heard Richard Meier give a talk at Cornell.  He was the epitome of
what all architecture students “should” want to be – young enough to be one
of the “40 under 40″ exhibit and cool enough to soon be in the book “Five
Architects” that had other up and comers like Charlie Gwathmey and John
Hejduk in its pages.

He manifested a new mid-century High Modernist aesthetic and the way to get
it built professionally (versus draw it and talk academically).  Meier, who had
originally designed white houses in the woods (sometimes for relatives),
grew to build a mid-town Manhattan firm, and had essentially one color to
worry about – the aforementioned white – and one aesthetic to impose on each
and every site, program, and client –Modernism.

Meier grew to full fulfillment of the “Starchitect” label – so much so that
when he began to use beige tones in some projects in the ‘80’s it raised
quite a kerfuffle.  His awarding of the Getty Museum commission in Los
Angeles was fully justifiable as his work had won just about every award
that there was to win and Meier at that time was in the full flower of
mid-career high performance in the world of super competitive fine arts

The Guggenheim Bilbao Museum by Frank Gehry paralleled Richard
Meier’s Getty commission in Los Angeles.  Two world class museums by two
world class Starchitects were being designed, built, and then reviewed side
by side in just about every major architecture magazine in America about a
decade ago.

For whatever reasons the consensus “big winner” was Bilbao and Gehry.  It
became, for the succeeding decade, the symbol of what expressive High
Modernism was evolving to and Meier’s extremely precise, intricate and
unbelievably integrated site and building design was relegated to terms like
“nice” and “appropriate” but not “cutting edge” or “transformative.”  Thus
the emperor, while not being naked, perhaps had his robe hiked up a few inches
off the ground.

Built during the Getty period, Meier’s People’s Bank in downtown
Bridgeport is set at a bend in I-95 that makes it the most prominent building
in the entire city for many traveling through Connecticut when they drive to
Boston or New York.  The project was remarkable for several things; it
carried through on Meier’s desire to explore a widened palette of materials
(there are multiple colors in its façade) and it created one of the relatively
few “skyscrapers” at that point in Meier’s career (although its height seems
exaggerated given the lowness of the surrounding city).

About a year and a half ago I noticed that the very pinnacle of that
skyscraper, the extension of the curving white façade’s square panels that
formed a blank “nub” at its peak had a new corporate logo applied to it.  At
the time of its building almost 20 years ago, it was publicly noted that
“nub” would “never” contain any corporate symbols on it – a strict Meier
directive as the building should stand alone and the beauty of its
architecture should be symbol enough for any entity, even a bank.  But,
alas, that preemption had been forgotten and in the collapsing world of
banking the need to promote stability and presence in an economic disaster
area overturned the High Art imperatives of any architect, even Meier.

But the next descent into the realm of economic impact on an architectural
career was even more disturbing.

Part of the world where designers demand authority is the hype that is almost
always associated with both Pop Culture and the shimmering glimmer of its most
celebrated result – Fashion.  For Richard Meier and many other architects,
beyond wearing black, fashion meant wearing the right eyeglasses. Until Daniel
Libeskind came along. Meier had, of course, opted for the black rimmed round
glasses of Corbusier and Phillip Johnson – but Libeskind rendered those uncool
to the point where even Sarah Palin saw the light.

As I work out to stave off middle age bloat, I watch political programs and
Law & Order reruns in the early morning hours. One morning on came Richard
Meier’s face – which I immediately recognized.  He was part of a succession of
ads that involved other “older” near celebrities – Joel Gray (whose daughter
is more famous than he for a 20+ year old movie) and
Penn of Penn and Jillette – the Las Vegas act of fairly silly import.

Meier was now lumped together with a “never was” and a “wonder who” in an
advertisement that yes, focused on, you guessed it, eye glasses.
“Superfocus” glasses to be precise.  Glasses that purport to do what bifocal
glasses have done for the better part of a century, provide clear vision away and
close at the same time.  Only it’s not just the lenses that were being
promoted, it was also the glasses, and these glasses were, by any definition
of the word, hideous.  They were not appropriately black.  They seemed to be
some form of plastic with two round lenses supported by an oddly integrated
and yet distinct horizontal line.

I know that Richard Meier hates those glasses.  I know he hates the People’s
logo standing atop his creation in downtown Bridgeport.  I know he hated
having people more or less decide that there was a “competition” between his
building in Los Angeles and Gehry’s building in Bilbao.

But the truth is, you reap what you sow.  He jumped in with full measure 50
years ago into a world that is more about fashion, hype, and “style” than
substance, relevance, and context.  A world that focuses on eyewear as an
indicator of “cool”.

The perception of value is fleeting.  People’s Bank has survived in an era
where most banks lost it. Architects aren’t so lucky.  About 30%
of us are unemployed, and I have to believe that just as People’s Bank
needed to put its logo upon its icon to keep its best hopes afloat that
Richard Meier needed to do that advertisement for those ugly glasses to
provide some level of support for a career that has been impacted not only
by the recent economic ebbs and flows but by the long-term casting of his
fate on the very unsteady waters of the world of architecture – where Fashion
seems to have come to be more important than relevance or value.

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