Artist Profile: Pritzker-winning architect Richard Meier on the Getty Center, his influences and the beauty of the color white
Encapsulating both the essence and importance of Richard Meier is a difficult task. With a career so decorated, buildings so illustrious and a personality so fascinating, I found myself a bit blind in trying to figure out where to start. But with a body of work that captures the various intersections of art, design and architecture rather masterfully, an effort in earnestly profiling Meier was worth undertaking.
Meier garners acclaim from critics, colleagues and patrons alike for his notable structural clarity, use of light and space and his uncompromising persistence for the color white. Minimal, bare and — by consequence — subtly provocative artscapes are a signature of Meier’s, reflected in works such as the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art, Darien, Conn.’s Smith House and Rome’s grand Jubilee Church (something Meier himself boasts as being the “crown jewel” of the Catholic Church’s millennium celebration).
Though a maven in the world of architecture, Meier not only fashions himself an architect, but an industrial designer and abstract artist as well. While he has works that have long become unwavering urban fixtures, one can also find Meier’s work in art galleries the world over or as consumer products that reflect his architectural philosophy in its svelte, elegant glory.
Though a large contingent of our readership may not consider him a household name, Meier’s design and architectural influences span continents, manifesting themselves both in buildings he himself had a hand in creating or in buildings tasked by the many architects who have taken great inspiration from him. Many of them are buildings people are bound to see at some point in their lives, regardless of their familiarity with Meier. Among his works, the Getty Center reigns as one of the most notable, celebrating its 20th anniversary later this month.
Costing $1.3 billion (a far cry from the original estimate of $100 million, but a cost that was well within reason for J. Paul Getty’s posthumous fortune to bear), the collection of travertine and metal panel adorned buildings has become one of Los Angeles’s and the world’s most notable pieces of architecture.
Perched atop a hill in the Brentwood neighborhood of L.A., Meier took as audacious of an approach in the Center’s design as the project proposal itself. Utilizing large concrete columns, towering walls and a gridded layout, Meier fashioned the center through stylistically minimal means that simultaneously engender wonder and provocation. Among the many components Meier used to command the Center’s aura are the various avant-garde fountains that span the campus, meant to maintain a consistent level of peaceful white noise regardless of where patrons walk or sit. Wherever you walk, in the Getty or any of Meier’s other works, his attention to detail always glows.
Coined “the commission of the century,” it’s a campus that, both in its architectural significance and contribution to the world of fine arts, is more than worthy of celebration, especially twenty years on. The Center’s campus is home to seminal institutions of the art world (all on the virtue of the Getty fortune, namely the J. Paul Getty Museum, the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Getty Foundation), and Meier’s command over its construction is befitting of his own personal philosophies of architecture.
In a phone interview with The Daily, Meier further illuminated upon his five decades of architectural inspiration and design.
With the Getty Center turning 20 soon, what are some memories you have when selected to take on the project?
What was important to me was considering where [the site] was, how it related to its surroundings, how it can contribute the environment. It was a very ambitious project.
Two decades on, do you think there was something you would have done differently in designing the Getty?
I can’t say I blame you. The Getty is a favorite of mine.
Truth be told, there probably has to be, but I honestly can’t think of anything at the moment!
I think in the way the buildings relate to one another, the way people move — from inside to outside — works very well. I think there’s a lot of communication there, among the staff and the patrons, and I’ve had so many people come up to me that have visited the Getty who’ve said, “You know, I spent the whole day there but I didn’t have time to go into the museum.” So, it’s a place to walk around and see things, and hopefully meet friends and have a bit of lunch and a place to just generally enjoy the environment. I think we succeeded in making such a space.
On that note, speaking to your work as a whole, what are some important considerations for you when tasked with designing a building?
Well, I think the most important thing is beginning with a program. Someone comes to you and tells you what their expectation is in terms of what they envision — be it a residential building, commercial, a museum. But all that being said, it’s the context that matters most, really. What the building is, how it relates to what’s around it, how it can have arms — so to speak — that reach out and improve the existing context of the area.
Specifically with art spaces — with you having designed multiple museums — are there particular components you consider integral in designing such spaces?
Oh, absolutely. Light is, of course, paramount. The quality of light, they way you see things in natural light. One doesn’t really aim to design a black box, so to speak. You want something that can have a relationship with interior and exterior space, and that generally holds true for any building, but most definitely for an art gallery as well.
When designing such buildings, what’s your process in generating ideas?
I look carefully at the program, the environment, the context, and try to think about how people will use it, move through it and internalize it.
Do you have specific architects you draw particular influence from?
There are so many, to be honest, people I admire, historic and contemporary. Brunelleschi, Le Corbusier, Alvar Aalto, Louis Kahn. There are a lot of great, great architects in the past, but that also doesn’t change the fact that there a lot of great people working today too.
On the note of such contemporary architects, recent pop culture has seemingly taken a liking to architecture — Kogonada’s recent film “Columbus” comes to mind, highlighting Eero Saarinen’s work in Columbus, Ind. What are your thoughts on architecture becoming better embedded within popular culture?
What it really means is that now people are much more aware of architecture, and much more aware of their environment today. They’re interested in seeing things, simply put. As people travel more nowadays, it holds true. They look at things. They look at architecture. They’re interested in seeing different places, how their architecture in that place is different than another place, and what that could mean. It indicates greater awareness.
As an abstract artist yourself, do you find being an architect in a similar light as being a conventional “artist”?
I do paint, and I do collages quite often. I would consider myself an artist.
But in regards to architecture, do your experiences in both domains affect your thinking as an architect? Or as an artist?
No, not at all. Actually, they’re completely separate to me. When I’m doing architecture, I’m doing architecture. When I’m doing works of art, considerations get more abstract. Personally, there is no correlation — I don’t think at least. Someone else may find some, as critics do, but I wouldn’t say there is.
Would you say you have a sort of cognisant philosophy when it comes to your architecture?
Oh, yes. Definitely.
How would you describe it?
As an architect, you are creating space, space people will be moving through, space people will live in. I think about the quality of meaning of such space on people. How natural aspects such as light come into the space, enlivens the space and what meaning can be drawn from that. With all the factors that come with thinking about architecture, one’s approach to creation is quite different than what you may think about when making a painting. One requires less self-indulgence than the other.
With a lot of your work, the color white is a persistent theme, and I’m a personal fan of its use. What draws you to it? What does it mean to you?
White reflects color, refracts color, allows you to see the relationship between that which is natural and that which is man-made. It heightens your perception of all the actual color, and beauty, that surrounds you.
Were there any works that were particular challenges for you?
Funnily enough, the Getty. There was a lot to consider in making it. There is nothing like it.
What are your plans for the coming years in terms of projects (if you can divulge that)?
Hah, I wish I knew that.
Is the business of architecture more short-term, or not terribly easy to predict?
We’re very busy today, which we’re very fortunate for. But a year from now, who knows?