Charles Gwathmey, Architect of the Modernist School, Is Dead at 71
As the owner of Consulting For Architects, I have had the opportunity and privilege to work with the architecture firm, Gwathmey Siegel from the mid nineties to present as a provider of staffing services. Mr. Gwathmey’s passing is a loss for his family, friends, firm and the profession and I hope to bring together some of the things others have said about him recently in regards to his passing.
From the New York Times:
Charles Gwathmey, part of a generation of architects who put their own aesthetic stamp on the “high Modernist” style, died on August 3. He was known both for residential work — he built living spaces for Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Jerry Seinfeld — and sometimes controversial public buildings.
In the New Yorker Magazine architecture critic Paul Goldberger said:
Postscript: Charles Gwathmey
In 1965, Charles Gwathmey, three years out of the Yale School of Architecture, designed a house and studio for his parents, the artists Rosalie and Robert Gwathmey, on Bluff Road in Amagansett, on eastern Long Island. Gwathmey was twenty-eight, an age when most architects are toiling away in large corporate offices and hoping for the chance to renovate a friend’s kitchen. When Gwathmey’s project, a pair of crisp, sharply angled structures covered in cedar siding, was finished, a year later, it became one of the most influential houses of the decade: a composition of cubes, cylinders, and triangles, it was a study in inventive modernist geometries. It cost somewhere around thirty-five thousand dollars, and it inspired a generation of beach houses in the Hamptons and elsewhere.
Architectural careers generally develop slowly, which made Gwathmey’s particularly unusual, the architectural equivalent of the young writer who comes out of nowhere and produces a brilliant first novel. In some ways, Gwathmey was the architecture world’s Norman Mailer, with the same bravado, the same raw talent, and the same career-long anxiety about whether he could continue to equal his spectacular first performance. Over the years, Gwathmey’s work became more complex than the house and studio in Amagansett, and vastly more elaborate. The cabinetry in any Gwathmey kitchen was certain to cost several times as much as his parents’ entire house.
A few years after the house in Amagansett was finished, Gwathmey and his architectural partner since 1968, Robert Siegel, designed an apartment at the El Dorado, on Central Park West, for Faye Dunaway, and over time they became the architects of choice for clients in the entertainment industry who were sophisticated enough to want something other than an interior decorator’s French Provincial. The firm of Gwathmey Siegel designed modernist houses and apartments for David Geffen, Steven Spielberg, Jerry Seinfeld, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Ron Meyer, and Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy, not to mention grandiose modernist villas for Michael Dell, the computer maker, and Mitchell Rales, a Washington, D.C., industrialist, for whom Gwathmey also designed a private museum, Glenstone.
By the time the large villa that Gwathmey had designed in East Hampton for François de Menil, now owned by Larry Gagosian, was completed, in 1983, it was clear that Gwathmey had become not the avant-garde architect that his early success had promised but something closer to a modernist Stanford White or John Russell Pope. Gwathmey’s modernism, by then, had become not so different from what a Georgian manse was in the nineteen-twenties: a symbol of refinement and sophistication more than of cutting-edge sensibility. Maybe it didn’t matter: after all, his houses were impeccably designed and exquisitely crafted, and his clients were not just any rich people but ones who knew the difference between a Gwathmey house and someone else’s.
Still, Gwathmey hated to be thought conservative, and the unspoken theme of his career was the struggle between his desire to continue to make buildings that were new and different and his passion for a kind of classic modernism, which as time went on seemed ever more to be a part of history. He never copied anything literally, and he couldn’t bear to think of himself as one of those architects who replicate the past. He kept trying, over and over, to find new ways to rearrange the basic geometric shapes he loved so much—he was earnest, almost innocent, in his passion for pure architectural form—and his late work, if not dazzling in the way that his parents’ house was, had a striking richness to it. He tried new surfaces, he tried new materials, he tried new shapes, but there was always the same kind of sleek, crisp formality to his work. If there is such a thing as blunt intricacy, Gwathmey’s architecture has it.
He was at his best at small scale, which made him the opposite of almost every other major architect of our time. He did a few towers, none of which were great, and several institutional buildings, few of which equalled his best houses. (He was almost alone among first-class architects in making houses a central part of his practice, even when he had plenty of bigger, more lucrative projects.) Toward the end of his career, he poured his heart and soul into a non-residential commission he cherished, the restoration and expansion of the Art and Architecture Building at Yale, by his teacher Paul Rudolph. The Rudolph building is an impossibly difficult neo-Brutalist masterpiece from 1963, and Gwathmey made it look better than it has in forty years. His addition is smart and well planned on the inside, and too complex and overwrought on the outside. It tells you all you need to know about its architect, who couldn’t bring himself to sit quietly beside his mentor. Gwathmey paid loving homage to Rudolph in the restoration, and then he wanted to get into the ring with him. I don’t think he was trying to show his teacher up. He just worried about what it would look like if he didn’t assert himself. He never wanted anyone to think that he didn’t have the right stuff.
More from the New York Times:
While in his 20s Mr. Gwathmey became a sensation by building a house for his parents on the East End of Long Island. The house, completed in 1966, was consistently described as one of the most influential buildings of the modern era. Two years later he and Robert Siegel founded Gwathmey Siegel & Associates.
Perhaps the firm’s best known work was its addition to Frank Lloyd Wright’s design of the Guggenheim Museum on the Upper East Side, the rectangular tower beside the building’s famous spiral.
Mr. Gwathmey’s Astor Place condominium tower drew criticism from those who said it was insufficiently deferential to its surroundings.
Mr. Gwathmey in 1976, outside of Whig Hall at Princeton University. His renovation of the building was known as one of his more daring projects.
The Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens.
Mr. Gwathmey created a proposal for the World Trade Center site, along with Richard Meier, Peter Eisenman and Steven Holl.
Mr. Gwathmey in his apartment in Manhattan.
Via New Yorker Magazine and NYT