Interplay Of Time & Space
Richard Meier


Richard Meier

©Richard Meier

As an introduction to a discussion of my work, I'm going to present you a kind of nutshell summation of the state of the art of architecture. But I want you to know that I have no objectivity in this endeavour, because I bring to it a mind which is burdened with bias and a dangerous proximity to the issues. I do not have the distance and the cool consideration of the critic. My comments are conditioned by the heat of close involvement and also by strong beliefs. Pluralism, eclecticism, Post Modernism, all the isms abroad today in architecture, speak of the breakdown of the ideological base of the Modern movement. Some people would say that happily we have escaped the spectre of Modernist dogma, the huge petrifying responsibility of making a better world through architecture. And some people would say that finally we have liberated our art, secured its autonomy, wrestled it from an enslavement to a Utopian determinism, an enslavement which seems unrealistic and which is proving disastrous more often than not. The great faith in the miracle of technology and the great faith in the architect as a provider of global solutions is over. Now essentially what this means is that the specific subject of our art has changed. It's no longer the ideal or the future, but the real, the present and the past. If one thinks of architecture as the treatment of meaningful forms, then the rigorous absolutism of Modernism looms as a period in which many fundamental meanings were forgotten or proscribed. It's the aim of this new pluralism to make the totality of significant human experience available again. And to this end, history becomes a dimension of fundamental importance. The revival of the neo-classical tradition is especially important to the new wave in architecture, Post Modernism, a remarkably uninformative name but which in fact covers a multitude of styles. The basic difference between the Post Modernist and their Modernist progenitors comes from its attitudes about the expressive didactic role of architecture. Should architecture speak to Man about Man, or about architecture, about the object itself? Within the neo-Classical tradition, the architect used forms that referred to Man's physical being. A building had a foot, a body and a head. Architecture's object was the relationship between Man and Nature. Now Modernism, with its technical liberation and rejection of the past, sought to differentiate Man from Nature. This act of abstraction let the building speak for itself, celebrated the potential realisation of objects that serve Man but which was distinct from him. Modernism strove for a pure statement. Elements were reduced to raw material, de-historicised in order to be reconstituted as structure. Now this is not to say that Modernism did not deploy both archetypal and historical references for symbolic purposes. But it was never representational. Essentially Post Modernism is a return to the representational in architecture. It is a return to the anthropomorphic notion of architecture as a reflection or as an image of Man himself. It sees architecture primarily as a vehicle of expression for meanings, as an evocation of memory. At its best this can mean an architecture of rich collage, a complex layering of meaning and symbol and metamorphic imagery. At its worst, it becomes a literal reading of historical quotes and allusions which are ultimately either so accessible that they become uninteresting, or otherwise so esoteric that they become unintelligible. Now the danger in this is that the reduction of architecture to a jabber of styles, a packaged set of meanings, and, worse, its historical and eclectic perspective, gives it immunity from values. Everything and anything is acceptable. Under the Post Modernist umbrella one can find a multitude of directions. These range from an espousal of the accidental or illogical kind of chaotic or perverse taste-making in which rules are never really established, and in which a virtue is made of the commonplace, to subtle and complicated linguistic game- playing which sets up its own cerebral and labyrinthine structure that really never gets fully expressed in terms of the architecture. In the first we find a romance with the familiar in which the messiness and the disorder of life, which was once spurned by the Modernist, is now catapulted to a place of honour. And we're told that we're to learn from pop idols and the instant aesthetics of the highways. Architecture is no longer seen as timeless but it's a throw-away subject to the caprice of commercial culture and the exigencies of the marketplace. As you know, decoration is in; and facades are either laden with classical mouldings, keystones and columns, or otherwise mass with super-slick mirror-glass and hightech colour. The fact that the elevation of the building is the most accessible and two-dimensional expression of the designs, makes for a kind of obsession with the facade. This in turn de-emphasises the plan and the section, the more abstract aspects of the building in which spatial exploration is the subject. Again, this is altogether within the neo—Classical tradition, for the representational, the pictorial dominate the scene. It seems regrettable to me that at the end of the 20th Century we must return to a former time so wholeheartedly, putting aside the technological advances that have freed us to such an unprecedented extent. The free plan, the free facade, the separation of skin and structure, the whole formal basis of the Modern movement, fostered a new kind of volumetric exploration, one that seems to hold many more possibilities. Well, there is a certain scepticism, as I'm sure you've noted, in this discussion of where we are today, and I have to tell you that I've been dubbed a Post Modernist at times myself and I must admit that the title chafes more than just a little bit. I'm not a pure die-hard Modernist, yet I cannot believe that the great promise and richness of some of the formal tenets of Modernism have been exhausted. Which is what in fact the term Post Modernism implies. My work does not lie within the neo-Classical tradition. I reject the representational and embrace the abstract. Mine is a preoccupation with space, not abstract space, not scaleless space, but space whose order and definition are related to life, to human scale and to the culture of architecture. Architecture is vital, it's enduring because it contains us, it describes space, space that we move through, exist in and use. I work with volume and surface, and manipulate forms in light, changes of scale and view, movement and stasis. My sources include many from the history of architecture, but my quotes and allusions are never literal. My meanings are always internalised, my metaphors purely architectural. I am still taken with the poetics of Modernism, the beauty and the utility of technology. My primary ordering principles have to do with a kind of purity that derives in part from the inherent distinction between the man—made and the natural. And this distinction serves to unite the two in a complementary relationship. I see Man's intervention as an aesthetic organisation of the environment, and hope to impose a coherent system of mutually-dependent values - one might say a harmonious relationship of parts. And by this I mean a resolution of all the interlocking issues of form, function and fitness. And above all there has to be a reciprocal involvement between the concept for building and its physical manifestation. My rigour also is a search for clarity, and this search for me begins with the plan, the plan which seems to have been neglected of late but is in fact the key. This two-dimensional image contains within it the instructions for the three-dimensional object that is the building. And together with the section, the plan generates the building. While the elevation tends to pictorialise the plan and the section, speak to the architect about spatial ideas. But of the two, the plan is the most convincing and fundamental expression of architectural ideas. I do believe that buildings should speak. And in my work the use of specific and internally consistent vocabulary of elements and themes, over the years, has allowed me a coherent, perhaps evolutionary means of expression.


The Atheneum, New Harmony, Indiana

©Richard Meier

The design of a number of private houses has provided me with a very good opportunity to develop my ideas about architecture. Within them, I found and tested a vocabulary and set of values. And in the larger projects of the past ten years, this is varied because of the nature of the context which has ranged from virtually free-standing and autonomous buildings as in the case of the Atheneum in New Harmony, Indiana,

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