His Defining Moment

Steve Proffitt, a contributing editor to The Times' Sunday Opinion section, is director of the JSM New Media Lab, the interactive arm of JSM+ Communications, a Los Angeles-based advertising agency

At the highly guarded Getty Center, Richard Meier doesn’t have a security pass. These days, with the museum about to open and a legion of recently hired sentries in place, he has to literally sneak around the site, relying on the recognition by old hands and talking his way past checkpoints.

This is a bittersweet time for the architect. In the 13 years since he was awarded the job of creating the $1-billion Getty Center, the project has been the focus of his life. He’s lived for much of that time in a small house on the site, shepherding his vision from concept through completion. Now that his work is all but finished, he finds himself musing about feelings of pride tempered by a profound sense of loss--not unlike what a parent experiences when a grown child leaves home.

Irony has taken a seat next to Richard Meier throughout most of his career. American-born and trained, his work has found its most appreciative audience in Europe. His crisp, clean designs include the Museum for the Decorative Arts in Frankfurt, the Canal Plus office building in Paris and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. With the Getty, Meier becomes the undisputed voice of late-20th century Modernism. Even though he’s putting the finishing touches on what may be the greatest architectural project of the century, Meier has never built a high-rise, never won a commission to create a performance hall and has never built anything in New York City.

“There’s still time,” says Meier, who just turned 63 and considers himself to be in mid-career. He’s weathered a number of controversies with the Getty, including differences over the hiring of artist Robert Irwin to create the Getty’s Central Garden and the choice of architect Thierry Despont to design some of the gallery interiors. He’s miffed by the addition of a cactus garden on the south side of the museum, which he finds cold and hostile. All told, however, he’s pleased with the outcome and squires a visitor around the site with an enthusiasm both surprising and refreshing.

Meier, a native of New Jersey, studied at Cornell University and, like most architecture students of the day, was influenced by European Modernists such as Finland’s Alvar Aalto, Bauhaus master Mies van der Rohe and Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier. He was also profoundly taken with the work of American Frank Lloyd Wright. In interpreting the philosophies of these seminal designers, Meier has created a body of work with a distinctive style and signature color--Meier white.


Some critics deride his approach as too predictable. Others find it a breathtakingly clear expression of what architecture, and Modernism, should be.

While the Getty Center is a hard act to follow, Meier plans to stay busy. He’s building a private home in Florida as well as his first religious structure, the Church of the Year 2000 in Rome. In a conversation that begins at the museum site and continues from his office in New York, he talks about the challenges of creating work on such a grand scale, his design philosophy and the effects the Getty and other new, important architectural works will have on the psyche of Los Angeles.


Q: The first experience for Getty visitors is a tram ride up the hill to the site. How much of the idea for the tramway was part of the overall design and how much was dictated by the demands of the land-use agreements?

A: That was not imposed by anyone. It was all decided by the Getty. We knew that we would need a good deal of parking. We felt like six levels of parking is about all one can deal with. The only place to accommodate that amount of parking is at the bottom of the hill, at the entrance to the site under the San Diego Freeway. So how do we get people up and down? The easiest solution would be little buses. But even though it cost more, the Getty wanted a noiseless, pollution-free system. We couldn’t make a moving sidewalk work on that slope, so the tram seemed the best way to move people from parking to the top of the hill. As a side effect, it’s kind of a decompression period, where you get out of your car, ride the tram, see the city open up in front of you and arrive at the top.


Q: And when you get there, the first thing you’ll likely notice is the stone. How did you select it and what feeling did you intend it to achieve?

A: From the start we knew stone would be an important element. We didn’t have a particular image in mind, so we methodically began to investigate stones from all over the world. We left no stone unturned, as it were. We also looked at the site--the land--and it seemed that a light beige color of stone was appropriate, because that’s really the color of the soil there. We had been looking at some French limestone which had the right feel, but you couldn’t get it in large pieces. Somebody brought in some travertine one day. Well, I know travertine, and I know hundreds of buildings made of travertine, but I thought maybe we could find a way to create the texture of the French limestone in the travertine. Happily, we found that by clefting the stone--literally chopping it in half with a giant ax--we could get the texture and feel we wanted, in blocks of sufficient scale.


Q: How did you arrive at the construct of separate galleries for the museum--a series of buildings rather than one large structure?

A: The idea of organizing the collection in pavilions or clusters came from the Getty. Going from gallery to garden was something that existed, in a different way, at the Malibu Getty. The relationship of inside to outside was something you experienced there. This is something that is possible in Los Angeles and not possible in other parts of the world.


Q: The galleries are illuminated by skylights, which use a series of louvers that move with the sun. How difficult was it to create a design to provide enough natural light in this setting?

A: John Walsh, the Getty Museum director, said from the beginning that he wanted galleries where people could see paintings in natural light, which is the way they were intended to be seen. I totally agreed, and so we built a whole series of models, many of which you could sit in, to explore the way we could use and diffuse the light. We started with small models and then built big ones, which we wheeled outdoors. We made miniatures of paintings, and you could sit in [the models] and see what things would look like.


Q: Light is an important design element throughout the center. How do you incorporate the movement of sunlight through the buildings and how does that relate to the material design of the buildings?

A: Light animates the space. It adds life, and I find that very exciting. The way that light articulates the space throughout different parts of the day is part of what a museum should do--it should increase your awareness and heighten your perceptual senses.

Q: There’s been quite a bit made of the fact that you didn’t have control in designing all the interiors of the galleries. Now that the work is all but finished, what’s your feeling?

A: When I was told that Thierry Despont was going to design the interiors for the decorative arts galleries, I was somewhat taken aback. But in retrospect, I see that it is what the Getty wanted. I could have never done it, and while we have different philosophies, I think Thierry has done an excellent job.


Q: What is your design philosophy and what’s your personal definition of the school with which you are identified, Modernism?

A: Modernism is a somewhat all-encompassing term. I believe that what we do today has to relate to where we are and where we’re going. It seems to me that Modernism is to strive in every area of life, to find the essence of things and to find the simplicity in things. In architecture that means trying to find what is appropriate today and, hopefully, for the future. It’s not so much a style as a belief. Architecture, or art of any kind, has to strive for a certain clarity. It’s that clarity which allows everything else that is a part of our lives to be clearer and in focus.


Q: Architectural styles go in and out of fashion. How does one create a building that will be meaningful not only in the present, but for generations to come?

A: Architecture isn’t something that’s reinvented every week. We learn from history. But that doesn’t mean that things have to look like the past, and I think that’s where Postmodernism went down the wrong lane. Architecture has to find the essence of what is important at the moment and make us learn from that and move ahead.

Q: So is it more important to interpret your time and be relevant in the moment or to make something that will be appreciated and understood in the future?

A: I think the moment is pretty hard. After all, architecture takes a long time. I’m interested in work that has a lasting quality, and I hope it has as much meaning tomorrow as it does today. I don’t think we’re so much interpreting our time as we are concerning ourselves with creating an enduring quality.


Q: You’re designing several private homes now, but at one point, didn’t you decide you wouldn’t build any more private, single-family houses?

A: I did. I was getting a social conscience. And I felt that spending all that time on a building for two people seemed socially irrelevant. But over time I began to realize that houses have a lasting influence. They may influence the way people think about housing and the way we live, and so I now enjoy doing houses again.


Q: How did your aesthetic develop and mature through your early influences, going, if you’ll excuse me, from Wright to White?

A: There were architects who were totally dominant when I was a student. Those would be Alvar Aalto, Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright. You can’t imagine four more different architects. So as students, we sort of went from one to the other. Early in my career, I was very interested in Frank Lloyd Wright. I believed it was possible, in a single-family house, to create an extension of space from interior to exterior. Wright always spoke of the importance of organic architecture, and of the inside and outside melding together. In 1965, I built a house for my parents, of wood and brick, in which the walls were inside but also extended out into the garden in a Wrightian manner. From building that house, I learned that the wall on the outside, even built of the same material and in the same plane, is different than the wall inside. The light is different. Outside weathers differently than inside, and its appearance changes, so there is a distinction between interior and exterior space.

So my next house, the Smith house in Connecticut, uses a great deal of glass, and it is defined as an object, a building on the land. In the idea of organic architecture, Mr. Wright was wrong. Because once you cut down a tree, it is no longer alive and no longer truly organic. It’s inert and you have to protect it. So in the Smith house, we used white paint. That would protect it. And even though the interior spaces were interconnected and you could look in and out, the interior and exterior were much more clearly defined.

Q: How has that thinking evolved and how is it expressed in your current residential work?

A: Within a home there are public and private spaces. The public spaces should be open and interconnected. The private spaces--bedrooms and baths--can be almost cellular in their organization. This is a theme I’ve developed in different ways with different houses. I think it’s helped me think about public and private space in larger, institutional architecture. Even in a museum, there are differences between public and private space, and the expression of these should be different. The articulation of that is really what my architecture is all about.


Q: Why do you think Europeans were among the first to support your institutional designs?

A: I was fortunate enough to win a competition in 1979 to design a decorative arts museum in Frankfurt, Germany. That museum touched a lot of nerves. In Germany there was a devastation of the arts due to World War II. All the artists [had] either left Germany or were killed. So this building represented something new but something that also had roots in the past. I think this building triggered a sense of what was lost and what is possible.

Q: Every artist struggles with innovation and consistency but some have criticized you for having almost a “brand.”

A: You know, I listen to Beethoven, and no one was ever critical of his consistency. I think of each project as something new. We all carry with us a certain amount of cultural baggage. So when people say, “Richard Meier’s work is so consistent,” I don’t know if that’s a compliment. If it is consistent, that’s due to a certain aesthetic or ideology.


Q: Here in L.A., a number of important architectural projects are coming to fruition--the Getty Center, Disney Hall, the new cathedral. How do you see these new buildings changing the lives of Angelenos?

A: In the ‘50s and before, Los Angeles architects like Richard Neutra and Rudolf Schindler had an enormous effect on people. And I see a renewed awareness about the importance of architecture, which is very healthy. It is a city in which the aesthetic sense of the environment has not been at the level one might hope.

Q: But what is the effect of having great architectural works in your city?

A: It affects your sense of place. Talk to somebody who lives in Chicago. They understand they live in a city of great architecture and value that enormously. The man on the street could probably tell you the names and locations of any number of buildings because he’s so proud of their architecture. I don’t think this is the case in New York or Los Angeles, but that could change. I hope these new buildings will make people in Los Angeles realize that they have a great city, which has the ability to have much more great architecture.


Q: You’ve given a great part of your life to the Getty project, and now you face the problem every architect has--you’ve got to go away and let the building do what you designed it to do. What are your feelings?

A: I’m very proud. It will be wonderful for Los Angeles in ways that we can’t even imagine today. People come up to me and thank me. It gives me a sense of pride that nothing else could. There’s also a sense of enormous loss because I’ve enjoyed being a part of this and am sorry it has to end. You know, it’s almost like the way I feel about my son. He just started college, and he’s on his own--but he still comes home on the weekends.