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Thread: Charles Gwathmey Modernist Architect Is Dead at 71

  1. #1
    Disgruntled Optimist lofter1's Avatar
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    Default Charles Gwathmey Modernist Architect Is Dead at 71

    Charles Gwathmey, Modernist Architect, Is Dead at 71

    August 4, 2009

    Charles Gwathmey, an architect who turned his love of Modernism and passion for geometrical complexity into a series of compelling houses and sometimes controversial public buildings, died on Monday in Manhattan. He was 71 and lived in Manhattan.

    The cause was esophageal cancer, said Mr. Gwathmey’s stepson, Eric Steel.

    Mr. Gwathmey was part of a generation of architects who put their own aesthetic stamp on the “high Modernist” style developed in the early 20th century by Le Corbusier and others. Many of Mr. Gwathmey’s best buildings were houses. A series of wealthy clients — including Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Jerry Seinfeld — chose him to create living spaces that were boldly geometric and luxuriously appointed, modern but certainly not spare.

    Gwathmey Siegel & Associates, which Mr. Gwathmey founded with Robert Siegel in 1968, was one of the rare architecture firms that maintained a thriving residential practice (its first apartment, in 1969, was for the actress Faye Dunaway) while also creating large buildings for schools, museums and private real estate developers.

    Many blended effortlessly into the urban fabric. They included the International Center of Photography in Midtown Manhattan; the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens; an expansion of the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard; and dozens more.

    But a few of Gwathmey Siegel’s buildings — including its 1992 addition to the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan and the more recent Astor Place condominiums in the East Village — were denounced by critics as insufficiently deferential to their surroundings.

    Among architects, Mr. Gwathmey was admired for his steadfastness during the 1980s, when some of his contemporaries turned to historicist, or post-Modernist styles.

    “A lot of people jumped ship, but Charlie was loyal to Modernism,” said Peter Eisenman, the architect and theorist.

    Cynthia Davidson, an author and editor, devoted an entire issue of her journal, ANY: Architecture New York, to Mr. Gwathmey in the late 1990s. She did so, she said, after realizing that “there’s a lot of interest in Charles’s work among the younger generation of architects.”

    “He’s somebody they look at — that they have to look at,” Ms. Davidson added.

    Mr. Gwathmey (the name is pronounced GWAHTH-mee) himself was a dashing figure, given to Savile Row suits and shoes from the London boot maker John Lobb. He drove black sports cars from which he stripped details he considered extraneous and lived in refined style, in an apartment of his own design.

    He became a sensation while still in his 20s, when, with his partner at the time, Richard Henderson, he designed a house for his parents, Robert and Rosalie Gwathmey, both artists, on the East End of Long Island. Completed in 1966, at a cost of $35,000, the Gwathmey house attracted throngs of visitors and was consistently named one of the most influential buildings of the modern era.

    Mr. Gwathmey described the house — a 1,200-square-foot cedar-clad composition of cubes, triangles and cylinders — as “a solid block that has been carved back to its essence.”

    “There is no additive, no vestigial, no applied anything that detracts from its primary presence,” he said.

    Mr. Gwathmey thought of the house and its adjoining studio as sculptures. “They are not,” he declared, “organic or integrated with nature.”

    In 2001 Mr. Gwathmey inherited the house from his mother and began a renovation that included covering the original concrete floor with marble. The upgrade was a sign of Mr. Gwathmey’s extraordinary success during the intervening years. Only a few miles away, he had designed a sprawling vacation compound for Mr. Spielberg, one of his many celebrated clients. Mr. Geffen, Mr. Seinfeld and the film executive Jeffrey Katzenberg were others.

    Many of his clients returned to him for second or third houses. Mr. Spielberg said in a telephone interview, “Whenever I had a project on the East Coast, the first call I made was to Charlie.” He added that Mr. Gwathmey “liked to mix it up” — liked to take strong stands in defense of his design ideas — but “if there hadn’t been the sparks, the architecture wouldn’t have been as brilliant.”

    Though lavish, Mr. Gwathmey’s residential designs were more about “This is who I am” than “This is what I’ve got,” Mr. Steel said. But they also reflected Mr. Gwathmey’s predilections for using angles and curves to create interlocking spaces, usually framed by materials like onyx, stainless steel and bird’s-eye maple.

    Mr. Gwathmey formed his partnership with Mr. Siegel in 1968. (They had first met as students at the High School of Music & Art in Manhattan.) One of their most daring projects was a renovation of Whig Hall at Princeton University, a neo-Classical building that had been damaged in a fire. Inserting Corbusian forms where part of the original facade was missing, they created a thrilling combination of traditional and avant-garde design.

    Other prominent buildings included the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., and, in New York City, the 1,000-unit Northgate apartment complex on Roosevelt Island. Among the firm’s most recent projects was a W Hotel in Hoboken, N.J. The new United States Mission to the United Nations, on First Avenue in Manhattan, is under construction.

    In New York Gwathmey Siegel was perhaps most famous for its addition to Frank Lloyd Wright’s design of the Guggenheim Museum on Fifth Avenue. The addition, completed in 1992, consists of a rectangular 10-story tower behind Wright’s famous spiral.

    The firm’s original proposal, for a much larger, cantilevered box, was denounced as obtrusive by critics and preservationists. In the end Mr. Gwathmey settled on a limestone slab that entirely defers to Mr. Wright’s powerful building. Paul Goldberger, then the architecture critic for The New York Times and now a critic for The New Yorker, ultimately concluded that with the renovation masterminded by Gwathmey Siegel and the addition, the Guggenheim “is now a better museum and a better work of architecture.”

    More recently, Mr. Gwathmey designed the Astor Place condominiums, a curvy glass building in the East Village. It was influenced by the sinuous towers of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe but lacked the serenity associated with Mies’s best buildings. Nicolai Ouroussoff, The Times’s current architecture critic, called the tower “squat and clumsy” and said it rested on “a banal glass box.”

    Yale University selected Gwathmey Siegel to renovate and enlarge its Art & Architecture Building, a much maligned 1963 masterpiece by Paul Rudolph that had been badly altered over the decades. Mr. Gwathmey was widely praised for bringing Rudolph’s architecture back to life. But when it was completed, last summer, the same critics who loved the restoration dismissed the addition; Mr. Ouroussoff called it “sadly conventional.”

    Still, Mr. Gwathmey took pride in having completed a building at Yale, his alma mater, that engaged in a conversation with Rudolph’s building, as well as with the 1953 Yale University Art Gallery by Louis I. Kahn across the street.

    Mr. Eisenman said that Mr. Gwathmey deserved more credit than he got for making sure that his building didn’t overpower its neighbors. “Charles was able to sublimate his ego and produce really sophisticated solutions to plan problems, to circulation problems — but those aren’t the kinds of things that make headlines,” Mr. Eisenman said.

    Charles Gwathmey was born on June 19, 1938, in Charlotte, N.C., and was reared both there and in New York City. He began college at the University of Pennsylvania and then moved to Yale, from which he graduated with a master’s degree in architecture in 1962. He then spent two years traveling through Europe, where he paid particular attention to the works of Le Corbusier. Fresh from that trip, he made a splash with his parents’ house, in Amagansett, N.Y., and soon became known as one of five young architects — Mr. Gwathmey was the youngest — who were reinterpreting Corbusian convention.

    The group, known variously as the Five or the Whites (for the color of most of their buildings) or the New York School, consisted of Mr. Gwathmey, Michael Graves, Mr. Eisenman, John Hejduk and Richard Meier. The Five added visual flourishes (and in some cases theoretical underpinnings) to the unadorned white architecture of their idol, Corbusier, creating ever-more-elaborate buildings out of familiar Corbusian forms. They were known for using architecture not as a social or environmental tool, but as a way of achieving aesthetic perfection.

    Over the years Mr. Gwathmey taught at a number of architecture schools, including those of Harvard, Yale and Princeton and, in Manhattan, of Columbia and Cooper Union.

    Mr. Gwathmey’s first marriage, to Emily Gwathmey, ended in divorce; they had one daughter, Annie Gwathmey of Los Angeles, who survives him. He is also survived by his wife, the former Bette-Ann Damson, now Bette-Ann Gwathmey, who is the vice president for corporate philanthropy at Polo Ralph Lauren, and his stepson, Mr. Steel, of New York.

    Mr. Steel said that “the same level of meticulousness that you see in his work, you’d see in every aspect of his life.” Even in the hospital during Mr. Gwathmey’s final illness, Mr. Steel said, “everything had to line up.”

    Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

  2. #2


    Quote Originally Posted by NYTimes View Post
    Among architects, Mr. Gwathmey was admired for his steadfastness during the 1980s, when some of his contemporaries turned to historicist, or post-Modernist styles.

    “A lot of people jumped ship, but Charlie was loyal to Modernism,” said Peter Eisenman, the architect and theorist.

  3. #3


    He'll be missed, projects like Astor Place Tower are such great period pieces, and the Yale building is a classic.

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    To me, Astor Place Tower is a formalist response to deconstructivism. Compare this building to Gehry's Stata Center, which was finished a few years before (2004), but probably well after Gwathmey's plans were ready. The three-dimensional asymmetry of the deconstructivists was either not favored by, or not possible in most Formalist construction. A guy like Saarinen, even if he had CATIA, would have favored monolithic forms that looked stately, rather than whimsical.

    So, in essence, you've got the end of Formalism happening as tastes begin to favor ironic, playful and spontaneous architecture, like the kind Gehry and Libeskind are into. The other evolution is pulling Saarinen's forms toward the high-tech route, which is being driven by guys like Calatrava. Where does that leave Gwathmey, whose career was centered around elegant forms as his era was drawing to a close?

    Astor Place Tower is an acknowledgement, however unconscious, of the limitations of Formalism. It marries a Late Modern rectalinear shape with an organic, but not unconstrained curvilinear shape. The wavelike shape appears to hug close to the rectangular parent, afraid to become completely asymmetrical. At the same time, it reaches out as if its curves are learning to fly...passing the torch to architects to come, challenging them to bolder heights.
    Last edited by CitiesfromSpace; August 6th, 2009 at 12:03 PM.

  6. #6


    The room was pregnant with anticipation. The young architectural Turk would lecture at Harvard after all, but not under the School’s auspices, and not in the lecture hall. The student radicals had to invite him after the School refused, and he probably wasn’t paid.

    In the faculty’s eyes, here was a pariah to be shunned along with the apostates Venturi, Graves, and later Stern. His message appalled the good professors; it deeply undermined the painstakingly-assembled Modernist ideology that they pimped as gospel. To a man, they were disciples of Gropius, Sert and Kallmann (and in fact they actually were Gropius, Sert and Kallmann). And to a man, they boycotted the lecture.

    The young Turk’s message he proudly shared with his colleagues in the New York Five, and it was this: a design process would be forged out of the early (Villa Savoie) vocabulary of Le Corbusier, combined with heavily encrypted references to buildings from the misty past --especially Renaissance Italy. Here would be erudite dialogue with history, but without the slightest descent into the literal; this movement was all about translation. And so abstruse were the translations that only the most historically literate had a prayer of pinpointing the translation’s source. (It is this historicizing that causes some to mistake Gwathmey and Meier for PostModernists; in fact the vocabulary is entirely from the Modernist pattern book.)

    You could think of it as erudition parading behind a veil.

    Later --as Eisenman pointed out-- Graves and Eisenman jumped ship from the Modernist vocabulary, but not Gwathmey and Meier. The latter found that he could extract from Corbu’s style more ravishing beauty (or at least, prettiness) than Corb himself ever knew was there, while Gwathmey started trying clothes from the wardrobe of Mies and others --sometimes with truly gauche results. His addition to Rudolph’s Art and Architecture building is an unmitigated disaster; Rudolph’s much greater talent shows Gwathmey to be the fair-to-middling architect that history will mostly judge him to be. His Astor Place building, however, I find lamentable only in that it’s burdened with a ground floor bank; I don’t mind that the curve is made with flat panes, and I think it’s altogether a nice foil to Cooper Union’s glowering megalump(s).

    What appeared in this room at Harvard awash with expectancy was a man in his thirties, virile in a tweed jacket and a balding head. As his baritone droned on about the fairly interesting modernist houses he was showing, no one was willing to admit that the man had not much verbal to add to the slides that passed across the screen. The images were interesting, the words less so. (But truth be told, even the images had a certain sameness.)

    Most of what he had to say of interest was about his client relationships and professional practice; he was much more of a practitioner than the glib theoretician, Eisenman.

    Because we worked at the same school, I frequently conversed with Charles Gwathmey. I found him to be earnest, a little humorless and less brilliant than Eisenman, Graves or Meier. He didn’t say much that was original, and you could observe him reach the end of his erudition on a subject that was based on history. This also meant he wasn’t really much of a teacher; he had to rely on his undeniable professional accomplishment, his emphatic way of speaking and his bulging muscles to keep his students’ respect.

    My job also brought me in contact with his fellows in the New York Five: Eisenman, Graves and Meier.They were all great historicists and sartorial sharpies. Graves and Meier mostly sported Italian suits and lavender ties, while Eisenman preferred wise-guy suspenders and a bow tie --preferably one that clashed with his striped preppie shirt; that was the twist that diverted you from spotting his getup as a pretty good impersonation of Willie Stark or Ed Begley.

    Gwathmey, however, tended towards black tee shirts that fit tightly because he had so much muscle to show. Gwathmey was a body builder. He managed to wow the ladies because his physique distracted them from his polished pate. It was a better shtick than Eisenman’s recitations of batting averages.

    Here was a man so full of testosterone that he was bald in his thirties, and his stentorian baritone helped drive home the point; it had metallic overtones.

    His passing will leave a vacuum; Gwathmey filled his particular niche pretty much all by himself.

    Last edited by ablarc; August 7th, 2009 at 10:43 AM. Reason: typo

  7. #7


    Quote Originally Posted by CitiesfromSpace View Post
    Astor Place Tower ... marries a Late Modern rectalinear shape with an organic, but not unconstrained curvilinear shape. The wavelike shape appears to hug close to the rectangular parent, afraid to become completely asymmetrical. At the same time, it reaches out as if its curves are learning to fly...passing the torch to architects to come, challenging them to bolder heights.
    It's a fragmented guitar. It was plucked directly out of a canvas by Braque, Picasso or Gris.

  8. #8


    Cool, I like that reading of it, especially because it's being inspired by something outside of another building or ideas about buildings. It would be a cool competition to ask architects to interpret a painting in a design, or pick an artist and see how they'd translate that into the built environment. Some of them would do literal stuff, like making a melting building based on Dali, but some architects would do much more conceptual stuff. Imagine what Zaha Hadid would do with Jackson Pollock!

  9. #9
    NYC Aficionado from Oz Merry's Avatar
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    Charles Gwathmey’s Iconic New York Buildings

    Watch the slideshow

    The architect Charles Gwathmey has died at 71 after a prolific and bewilderingly erratic career that, despite his absence, isn't quite over yet. Some of his major designs are still under construction, including the muscle-bound U.S. Mission to the United Nations and a doggedly hyperluxurious Fifth Avenue residential tower. In the sixties, Gwathmey was a member of the New York Five, a gang of swaggering modernists that included John Hejduk, Richard Meier, Michael Graves, and Peter Eisenman. Gwathmey was the most urbane and adaptable of the bunch. Along with his partner Robert Siegel, with whom he founded the firm Gwathmey Siegel & Associates, he supplied castles on the beach to the East Hampton nobility, corporate high-rises, apartment renovations, as well as a stream of civic projects. Rather than brand his designs with signature mannerisms, he combined smooth elegance of execution with the willingness to be self-effacing. In revisiting Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim and Paul Rudolph’s Art and Architecture Building at Yale, he politely declined to compete with the masters. Unfortunately, when some of the juiciest projects came his way, he occasionally allowed himself an infuriating lapse of taste.

  10. #10


    Quote Originally Posted by CitiesfromSpace View Post
    Some of them would do literal stuff ... but some architects would do much more conceptual stuff. Imagine what Zaha Hadid would do with Jackson Pollock!
    Oh, the Astor Place building is pretty literal; look at the Google satellite pics for confirmation.

    Gwathmey used to actually talk about guitars ... and also pianos. They're everywhere in Meier and Hejduk too --via Corb.

    Hejduk doesn't seem to have gotten much built; his stuff was too impractical.

    Zaha Hadid strikes me as a despoiler of cities ... a litterbug.

  11. #11


    Stern on Gwathmey’s Legacy

    Zeynep Pamuk
    Staff Reporter, Yale Daily News
    Published Thursday, August 6, 2009

    The modernist architect Charles Gwathmey ARC '62, who oversaw the restoration of the Art & Architecture Building and the construction of the Loria Center for the History of Art, died Monday at the age of 71. His fellow architect and longtime friend Robert A.M. Stern ARC ’65, the dean of the Yale School of Architecture, reflected on Gwathmey’s work, his life and his legacy in a conversation with the News on Wednesday.

    The News: People know about Charles Gwathmey as an architect, but tell us about Charles Gwathmey as a person.

    Stern: I knew him since I started architecture school and many people thought he was a tough guy. But really he was a very gentle person — the nicest possible friend to have, always considerate about other people. He couldn’t do enough for them.

    Looking back at Gwathmey's work, how would you interpret the wide range seen in his architectural style?

    Gwathmey was one of the most talented architects of his generation. He kept true to his early beliefs: he had an early love affair with Le Corbusier’s work from the 1920s — the pure geometry of cones and cylinders. He kept faith with that geometry and aesthetic, which he developed first in the house of his parents and kept true all the way through his career, especially in the residential architecture he is best known for.

    What will be his legacy in architecture?

    That’s always hard to know. The second part of his legacy [after his residential work] is I think more controversial. As an architect he was responsible for some of the most difficult interventions to architectural masterpieces: Le Corbusier’s Carpenter Center at Harvard, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum and [Gwathmey’s] concluding work for Paul Rudolph’s Art & Architecture Building at Yale.

    Nine months after the rededication of Rudolph Hall, how do you view the critique of Gwathmey's restoration and of his design of the Loria Center for the History of Art? What are their strengths and weaknesses?

    The strengths of Rudolph Hall’s restoration are unquestioned. Gwathmey brought it back to life — he gave it life. He cleared away the cobwebs of neglect with the consummate mastery of someone who knows when to show his own style and when to defer to someone else’s style. It was brilliant work. About the Loria Center: Not everyone is completely comfortable with it. It is definitely a building with its own character but one that doesn’t threaten or elbow its way in relation to Rudolph’s building. It is strong but not overly oppressive. People change their minds over time. Back when it was built, the Beinecke [Rare Book and Manuscript Library] was detested. Absolutely detested. Now every tourist wants to go there. … I think time will deal more kindly with the Loria Center.

    More on Rudolph Hall and Gwathmey’s restoration and addition here.

    You and Gwathmey are two of the pillars of the New York architecture scene. How was he seen in architectural circles?

    He enjoyed tremendous respect and popularity in architecture circles, but he was not one to hang around architects all the time. He had a diverse circle. He had artist friends. He was close friends with Ralph Lauren. He also became tremendous friends with his clients — they adored him. Mr. Dell of the computer company, Jerry Seinfeld, Steven Spielberg, these were some of his clients.

    Were you aware that Gwathmey was sick?

    I was aware about a year ago that he was battling esophageal cancer, but they thought the treatment would make him live for years and years. He was optimistic to the end.

    What was your relationship like with Gwathmey over the years?

    Charles worked out in the gym all the time, while I was a classic 90-pound weakling. When he saw me at the gym he used to laugh and say, “Bob, how ya doin’?” I’m only exaggerating, of course, but he was a complete physical fitness nut and was in great shape all his life. He was an incredible athlete and also the kind of person who liked to slap you on the back and wanted to know how other people were doing, but he also wanted you to call him every once in a while and say, “Charlie, how are you doing?” … Gwathmey was a perfect gentleman. A perfect sweetheart. I’m a little younger than him and I was in awe of him a student, but then — the irony of it — I became his client. That could have been hell for both of us, but it turned out to be wonderful.

    Last edited by ablarc; August 9th, 2009 at 11:39 AM.

  12. #12


    I guess it's sort of under the radar (even here at WNY), but I like the Soho Mews

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    ^ So do I.

    Actually, it has some things in common with Pei's apartment buildings of the Sixties.

  14. #14


    Thank you for bringing Soho Mews to my attention, Zip. It looks fantastic, and I'll be sure to check it out next time I'm in the city.


    About Gwathmey, his work's inconsistency is frustrating. We know he (and his partner) can do good stuff, and yet plenty of times we're left feeling unfulfilled.

    For instance, this building on SUNY Albany's campus opened a few years ago, and it functions as the university's front door: it sits at the main entrance to campus and contains the admissions offices and visitor's center... for many prospective students, this is one of the first things they'll see. And yet it stands incredibly aloof from everything surrounding it:

    The reflective and repelling glass here leaves the exact same bitter taste in your mouth as does the stuff used at Astor Place:

    Obviously G-S were going for a clean break from the past (which happens to be all Edward Durell Stone, all the time), but one look at it and I'm again left with that bitter taste -- surely there was a better solution?
    Last edited by kz1000ps; August 10th, 2009 at 10:36 AM.

  15. #15
    Disgruntled Optimist lofter1's Avatar
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    Scarily bad. On a hot summer day it must be a killer.

    Plant some trees already.

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