Right angles, white lines
RICHARD Meier - who crowned two decades of contemporary castlemaking with the Pritzker Prize this spring - is a signature architect and an individualist. His clarity of concept and the consistency of his style etched in clean white lines have marked a Meier building a ''Meier building'' on the landscape and in the magazines that have lauded his work.
In ceremonies at the National Gallery in Washington next Wednesday, Meier will become the sixth architect to win the $100,000-award modeled on the Nobel Prize. Earlier Pritzker prizes went to Philip Johnson, Luis Barragan, James Stirling, Kevin Roche, and I. M. Pei.
While an unease and ambivalence with modern architecture accounts for the shifts of style in many of his predecessors and peers, Meier is unchanging in his creation of a modernist mode, marked by crisp right angles and interlacing white lines. ''In his search for clarity and his experiments in balancing light , forms, and space, he has created works which are personal, vigorous, and original,'' the Pritzker jury stated.
No pediments or other historic trim play about the facades of Meier's houses; his museums, housing, hospital, Atheneum, and seminary show no whimsy or equivocation in choosing between then and now. Neither the picture-book past nor the post-modernist's borrowing from it appears. No radical shifts in aesthetics or functional purpose score his work.
The coherence does not imply piety to the present nor dogma in rejecting the past.
Meier has retooled Le Corbusier's forms of the 1920s: His circular ramp in the latest high-visibility High Museum of Art in Atlanta is reminiscent of the Guggenheim Museum; his glass-block windows come from the 1930s. But his evocation of the past is secondary or complimentary to the architect's sense of self, his integrity of form.
White surfaces, thin skins; striking, almost brittle geometries and odd-sized windows define a Meier exterior and draw the light that gives a radiance of his interiors.
One doesn't walk through a Meier building so much as take a cruise planned by the architect. The Hartford Semi-nary's white horizontal form, for instance, is launched against the horizon with long windows and rails like a ship. The more vertical elementary school in Columbus, Ind., lacks only flags unfurling to carry the passengers off in the airy buoyant artifact.
Criticism of Meier's work has come for just such lofty notions, for capturing passengers, i.e. users, on just such a trip, bound to follow the path of his forms. A kind of aloofness and lack of concern for the neighborhood context has concerned others.
Such judgments have not slowed Meier's gleaning of awards. The resume of his work since 1965 runs to two pages in the Pritzker press kit; the honors, more than half that number.
A tall lean man with wavy gray hair and glasses, Meier at 49 is the baby of the Pritzker Prize recipients. Add to that the fact that his career began late in life, after spending his late 20s in art, and that he had produced the smallest oeuvre in the list of winners, and he seems a relative youngster.
Meier first came to public attention for the very visible Cubist sculpture of his Smith and Douglas houses, the first typical Meier cutaway geometries; the second a pristine but intricate white box on stilts among the fir trees of Harbor Springs, Mich. Both stand among the best-known residences of his generation or among his then peers,a group of young architects known as ''The Whites.''
''There is no doubt in my own mind,'' Meier told the Pritzker award-givers, ''that given a choice, I would prefer to build museums and cultural institutions.'' These, rather than the less distinctive high-rise Twin Parks Northeast Housing of 1972 or the controversial Bronx Development Center, finished in 1977, allow the form-giving flourishes that have made the word ''beautiful'' a recurrent one in describing a Meier building.
The word ''beautiful,'' a strange adjective in the lexicon of architecture, has its drawbacks. ''His work is sufficiently sculptural - sometimes uncomfortably so - to make functionalists decry his emphasis on beauty,'' an article in Vanity Fair observed last month. ''Richard Meier comes closest to the stalwart individualist Roark of Ayn Rand's 'The Fountainhead.' His houses, museums, schools, and hospitals executed in the modest vocabulary remain rarefied and refined exemplars of the style. His stringency and elegance of line and his manipulation of shape-soaring sunlit spaces have great sensuous appeal, '' the article went on. ''Like Roark he is a steely idealist, and - also like Roark - he is invincible.''
''A little awesome to look at,'' the head of volunteers at the Bronx Development Center, says of this Meier work. ''I'm still overwhelmed with the architecture - this very futurist, ultramodern building right in the middle of the field,'' she says. Meier retorts: It was done at a period when mental health professionals dictated just such an approach to housing the retarded. Meier obviously takes offense at the article, says he aims to please, not awe, and that he shapes his seemingly lookalike buildings to fit the surroundings and the function.
Some feared that the High Museum of Art in Atlanta would compete with its art. Not so. Tooling the building to be ''introverted because of the nature of the site, the nature of the people,'' in Meier's words, the building has pleased all. ''He understands what art is about,'' says its director, Gudmund Vigtel. An atrium allows the architect his expression but the storage space services the staff; the galleries aid the paintings and sculpture. ''The museum is very sympathetic to the art,'' says Vigtel.
For the same functional reasons, Meier's Frankfurt Museum was designed to be ''extroverted,'' in the architect's words; it will look out onto a park and a city. Where Atlanta is whiter than white porcelain, Frankfurt is part white, part granite, part stucco, he says. Like his latest architecture, it is more intricate.
''It's much more complex than it was,'' Meier says of his work. ''It (the architecture) refers to the rest of our lives.'' That complexity characterizes our homes as well as our public institutions and hence Meier residences under construction in Des Moines, Iowa, or New Salem, N.Y., would once have appeared in a single (a ''single-minded'') material, wood. ''Now it's a combination of varied materials,'' Meier says, ''depending - granite, stucco, metal, panels, wood.''
Approaching his 50th birthday, veering into this new mode, Meier says the prize ''comes at a . . . a turning point in my career. My work is changing a great deal.'' Although the garland of past prizes is ample, this award is especially meaningful. ''People need reinforcing,'' he says. ''Invincible'' or not, single-minded or not, this architectural individualist has the added the armor of this prize to continue on a very personal path.