A wider shade of pale

Times Staff Writer

RICHARD MEIER did not look pleased.

Sitting at a corner table in the Getty Center's main restaurant, where he stops off for a meal every time he visits Los Angeles, the white-haired architect was discussing two of his least-favorite topics. The first was the decision by Atlanta's High Museum of Art, which occupies one of Meier's best-known buildings, to hire the Italian architect Renzo Piano to design an extensive new wing that opened last fall.

"I was upset that they didn't ask me to do it or even ask my advice about it," said Meier. "Of course."

Next was an equally touchy subject: the garden at the Getty designed by Robert Irwin, the artist with whom Meier famously clashed. Asked if he'd managed to put the feud behind him, Meier shook his head.

"I never go down there," he said of the garden, which Irwin designed in part to subvert what he saw as the self-importance of Meier's museum. "I don't even look down there."

Meier could take solace, at least, in the fact that the two topics were so clearly part of his professional past. Completed in 1983, the High Museum was the pinnacle of the first act of his career, when he was a darling of critics and academics alike, known for houses and museums executed in an all-white Modernism so abstemious that it bordered on a kind of fundamentalism.

The Getty -- well, the Getty qualifies as a second act all by itself. The project took nearly 15 years from start to finish, cost a cool billion dollars and led Meier, in adding huge chunks of travertine to the museum buildings, to experiment on a grand scale with texture and, however subtly, with color. It was also the catalyst for a broad debate in Los Angeles about the kind of monuments the city wanted or needed as it approached the 21st century.

Now, nearly a decade after the museum opened, Meier, at 71, is well into his third act. As the High Museum snub makes clear, his New York-based firm, Richard Meier & Partners, is no longer a sought-after designer of marquee cultural buildings.

But Meier, in the meantime, has steadily been winning over new kinds of clients, particularly condo developers and public agencies, to the extent that his influence on American cities is greater now than it has ever been. With his Perry Street and Charles Street condo towers in New York, courthouses on Long Island and in Phoenix and a city hall in San Jose, he has benefited from -- but also surely helped drive -- the new interest among real estate developers and government agencies in using prominent architects to market their projects.

Flush with Southern California commissions, the firm is also poised to make a significant mark on the cityscape here for the first time since the Getty. Some of the local projects, such as a beach house in Malibu and a steakhouse, Cut, inside the Regent Beverly Wilshire hotel, are smallish ones typical of the work Meier & Partners did on the West Coast in the years after the Getty opened. But they've been joined by a number of forthcoming buildings on prominent sites, including the Broad Art Center at UCLA, a federal courthouse in San Diego and a complex in Beverly Hills that will hold 252 luxury condominiums.

The Broad Center, which is being built atop the shell of the old Dickson Art Center by William Pereira, is set to open in the fall. On its southern facade, it will replace Pereira's heavy precast concrete forms, damaged in the 1994 Northridge earthquake, with delicate wood sunscreens. On the opposite side, the windows will be huge and largely uncovered, allowing its floor-through art studios to be flooded in softer northern light.

The size and diversity of the local commissions reflect the growing role of Michael Palladino, the 52-year-old architect who runs Meier & Partners' Los Angeles office. Palladino, who moved here in 1986 when he was 31 to help oversee the Getty Center project, has long enjoyed a reputation mostly as a useful foil, savvy and affable, for Meier. Until James Crawford, an architect in the L.A. office, was elevated earlier this year, Palladino was Meier's only full partner.

West Coast distinction

BUT in recent years Palladino, who now oversees a staff of 30 (compared with 50 employees in New York) has developed his own substantial reputation. Clients in California -- and in Philadelphia, where Palladino has designed a 43-story residential tower, known as Mandeville Place, on the Schuylkill River -- now seek him out directly. If he has yet to develop a style wholly distinct from Meier, the younger architect and the rest of the L.A. office have undoubtedly helped accelerate the firm's turn, which began with the Getty, away from the purity -- some would say severity -- of its early work.

Indeed, while the buildings that Palladino has lately produced feature the crisp lines and sense of openness that have always marked Meier's architecture, they also owe a significant debt to California Modernism. Along with glass and metal panels painted white, they use concrete, terracotta and, increasingly, wood. They show an interest in natural ventilation and energy efficiency that Meier, to put it kindly, is not celebrated for.

"There's a growing distinction in that sense, definitely," Meier says of the New York and Los Angeles offices.

As Palladino puts it, "We pay a little more attention to a materiality, color, texture, just because it's Southern California and sunlight out here is so much more meaningful."

"The museum we did in Frankfurt," he adds, referring to the German city's Museum of Decorative Arts, which opened in 1984, "is white, and it makes perfect sense there, because the light is so subdued. The brightness is at a completely different level. But what makes sense in Frankfurt might not make sense in Southern California."

Staking a beachhead

THAT'S a perfectly reasonable, even forgettable argument for an architect to make, but for Meier's partner to make it would once have verged on disloyalty, if not heresy. As recently as 2004, Palladino summed up the firm's work by telling The Times, "We design white buildings with a lot of glass." Two decades earlier, after becoming the youngest-ever winner of the Pritzker Prize, at 49, Meier had devoted much of his acceptance speech to explaining why he was never tempted to add color to his buildings.

"The whiteness of white is never just white," he said in that 1984 speech, sounding like architecture's answer to Gertrude Stein. "It is almost always transformed by light and that which is changing: the sky, the clouds, the sun and the moon."

Nowhere is the shift from the all-white, all-the-time approach more obvious than on the beach in Malibu, where Palladino is putting the finishing touches on a house for Peter Morton, a founder of the Hard Rock Cafe chain. Imagine a classic Meier residential design, precisely elegant and rigorous in its details but executed in teak, concrete and bronze instead of white metallic panels.

Unlike the firm's signature efforts at timelessness, the house is designed to adapt to its site, weathering and growing less prominent over time. Morton, though, has decided he likes the look of the new teak and at least for the near future plans to treat the wood every six months to keep it from darkening.

The guest wing is separated from the main house by a courtyard that draws the beach landscape into the middle of the site. Including those guest quarters and garage, the house covers more than 7,000 square feet. But compared with Malibu's more ambitious examples of neo-Mediterranean excess, it feels compact and efficient. And while it pops up enough from the sand to give dramatic views through operable teak shutters, it is a decidedly horizontal composition, maintaining the flow of the beachfront.

Though the design is remarkably different from Meier's earlier work in Malibu, which includes an imposingly white house for Eli and Edythe Broad, in at least one way it represents a return to basics. The first building Meier designed on his own, sketched out at night while he was working days in Marcel Breuer's office, was an unpainted wood house on Fire Island for Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft. Built in 1963, it used precut panels of cedar and Douglas fir, fabricated in a Michigan factory.

Using the precut system "was the only way we could finish it on budget," Meier recalls. "We did it in nine days, and we slept on the beach every night while we were building it."

In part because Meier has chosen to downplay it over the years, preferring a narrative of his architectural development that begins with a pair of all-white designs -- the 1966 Smith House in Darien, Conn., and 1969 Hoffman House in East Hampton, N.Y. -- the Fire Island house remains little known. It is nowhere to be found, for example, on the otherwise extensive Meier & Partners website.

For all its echoes of the Fire Island house, the new Malibu project is also the most dramatic example yet of Palladino's autonomy and the extent to which he has begun to practice a kind of architecture with its roots planted unmistakably in California soil. In this state, of course, as in Chile or Australia or other spots along the Pacific Rim, Modernism has enjoyed a long and productive marriage with regionalism. In that sense Meier is just one of many architects forced to acknowledge that the West Coast's climate and local architectural history can make Le Corbusier-style perfectionism look precious or stiff.

Still, even if the influence of the L.A. office on Meier's work fits naturally into that history, this is an odd cultural moment for an architect of Meier's stature and sensibility. When he was hired by the Getty, there was a sense among some in Los Angeles, particularly those who owned houses overlooking the museum site, that there was something to fear in his architecture, that it needed to be tempered, muted, defanged. Irwin made it clear he felt that the architect himself needed to be taken down a few pegs.

Those anxieties have largely disappeared. At the Beverly Wilshire, the hotel's owners and Wolfgang Puck, who runs its restaurant, wanted a sleek, inoffensively elegant backdrop for power lunches, which is precisely what Palladino and Meier provided. Indeed, you could say that Meier's name now rings with the same associations in architecture as Puck's does in the restaurant world: Each man now trades more on his hard-earned personal brand than on his inventiveness.

Civic skepticism

AT the same time, among public clients, there is a lingering sense even in an age of celebrity designers and magazines filled with sleek, spare buildings that architecture with a Modernist pedigree is, if not dangerous, then somehow foreign or not stately enough. In San Jose, Mayor Ron Gonzales wanted a well-known architect who could be counted on to produce an iconic design -- the kind of building whose silhouette the city could add to its official seal or slap on the side of its garbage trucks.

But Gonzales, who has been in the news recently after being indicted on bribery and fraud charges, also was certain that the city hall needed a dome. Without it, he felt, the building would be insufficiently civic. Meier, meanwhile, would sooner become an unpaid intern in Jon Jerde's office than top one of his buildings with a traditional dome.

In the end, the mayor and the firm reached a rather difficult compromise. The city hall is made up of a tower and a shorter attached wing, and a free-standing glass-enclosed dome, or rotunda, now sits in the plaza in front, used only for ceremonial events. The result is a perverse -- if telling -- bit of architectural symbolism, a building whose head has been lopped off and then has rolled right into the center of a public square. Whether the torso looks handsome, post-guillotine, is somehow beside the point.

"The city wanted modern architecture," Meier says, "but also wanted something they could hang their hat on, symbolically. And the dome was it."

Given the level of cultural confusion symbolized by the firm's adventure in San Jose, it would be rather harsh to look at the firm's latest work in California, with its surprising sense of place, and accuse Meier of inconsistency. Compared with adding a huge dome to a steel-and-glass tower, wrapping a California beach house in teak seems, in the end, a pretty modest step.

Christopher Hawthorne is The Times' architecture critic.

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