A couple readers contacted me, within the span of a few days, about two Richard Meier projects, one built and one under construction, both Federal projects. I received an e-mail from "Mr. C" about the U.S. Courthouse and Federal Building on Long Island that I featured on my weekly page about five years ago. Kiel e-mailed me about the San Jose City Hall, set to be in operation by August with finishing touches through October. Given thecoincidentall Meier messages, I thought I would address both in one post, a veritable Meier-palooza of the white-haired architect's white buildings.

Starting with the Federal Courthouse, Mr. C contested four points I made in my critique: 1. Formal - in this case elevation - considerations overriding practical concerns, 2. An ignorance of context via theprevalentt use of white aluminum panels, 3. The constant use of these white panels in Meier's buildings, and 4. The easy replication of Meier's signature style by his staff. Mr. C's experience working in Meier's office lends his argument some credence while potentially making it biased in his favor. Regardless, I'll briefly address each argument but, more importantly, try to continue the discussion (along with the San José City Hall) on the quality and merit of Meier's architecture.

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1. The image above illustrates what I referred to as "two-dimensional design considerations...evident in the courthouse's elevations", specifically the vertical stacking of four "balconies" that breaks up a rather expansive wall of glass and horizontal sun shades. Mr. C vehemently denies that Meier veers from the program, though he doesn't indicate what use these balconies serve. Without seeing any floor plans and going off my belief that the a lot of spaces in this building type, particularly the courtrooms themselves, do not require daylight, as well as judging from this image, I would say this exterior face is purely circulation. Therefore, I would guess the balconies are lookouts, in some ways appropriate considering the building towers above its surroundings. I would not argue that this gesture doesn't help the facade - it helps it greatly - but I would argue that it's functionally arbitrary. Perhaps Mr. C can illuminate the actual function of this vertical element.

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2/3. Richard Meier is most well known not only for his use of white aluminum (sometimes porcelain) panels, but also for his stubbornness in their application on nearly every project, apparent in the aptly-titled documentary on the making of the Getty Center, Concert of Wills. Mr. C does correctly point out that Meier has executed buildings in travertine and stainless steel, though I never said otherwise. Instead I asserted that "Meier constantly uses these white panels in any context," as he tried (unsuccessfully, though still used to a limited extent amongst the more-prevalant travertine) at the Getty and recently used at the Jubilee Church in Rome. My point was the architect's willingness to use the material anywhere, regardless of the surrounding buildings and landscape, not any limitation in his palette to only using white aluminum. The Crystal Cathedral project above is an example of Meier expanding his palette, this time to stainless steel, but to me it screams "I WANT TO BE WHITE ALUMINUM!" Even though he's using a different material, his formal vocabulary is the same, and it just doesn't work as well as the white surfaces that "[intensify] the perception of all other hues that exist in natural light and in nature." Here, that intensity is replaced with a dull shine, ironically one case where white should have prevailed.

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4. My assertion that Meier "wants to create easily replicated (by his staff) signature buildings" is a bit of an exaggeration, I'll admit. Given the size of his office and the number of projects going on simultaneously, a well-defined design structure is necessary within the firm to enable a lot of work to be accomplished by hands outside of Meier's. This is common in many offices, but not to the extent of his cookie cutter (another exaggeration...sorry) designs. My personal taste in architecture tends towards the eclectic when it comes to individual architects, so one of my favorites is Renzo Piano because of his seeming lack of repetition. Yes, Meier's designs are singular creations that are dictated by site features and program, but typically at the level of plan and elevation and primarily through geometry. They do achieve some beauty in the play of light and their contrast with nature, and some have impressive, soaring interior spaces. His reference to important features outside of the building site is one well-known device he uses to generate plans. On my first visit to the Crate & Barrel (image above) on Michigan Avenue in Chicago - with its skylight pointing at an angle directly towards the Hancock - I actually thought I was standing in a Richard Meier building; instead it was done by local firm Solomon Cordwell Buenz.

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Mr. C concluded his e-mail with the hope that I "will, through future experiences, open [my]self to the true beauty that is the architecture of Richard Meier and Partners." What better way than to take a glimpse at the soon-to-be-completed San Jose City Hall (image above and images below).

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Although my familiarity is limited to the text and images at the link above (no information is on Meier's web site), the City Hall is comprised of an 18-story office tower housing the city's various departments (from Mayor on down to Customer Service), a 3-story wing with the City Council Chambers, and the rotunda, City Hall's ceremonial entry and a public gallery. The decision to use the oft-used rotunda as a public space rather than, say, for the City Council, is an interesting one, strengthened all the more by its connection to a plaza.

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The design of the dome is somewhat of a departure for the architect more accustomed to flat roofs with the occasional cylinder and piano curve. Held in place by spider fittings, the glass dome recalls Norman Foster's Reichstag, though it remains to be seen what sort of environment will exist under the glass and the hot California sun.

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If he treats the rotunda like the tower, some solar shading may be in the works. In what appears to be the south face above, another layer is added to the glassy facade, its curve referencing the dome it faces and adding interest to the facade.

While it's too soon to pass any judgment on this building or say much more about it, I'll keep my eyes and ears open for the onslaught of images and words that will surely accompany its opening.


  1. I did come across this interesting website. . .

    interior design idea

  2. interesting...
    i got a question
    can u tell me what is the building's name in the second picture?

  3. anon - The paragraph under the image indicates it's the Crystal Cathedral project. It's in Garden Grove, California.

  4. I like this building very much. I attend church at the Cathedral,my work is developing image programs and marketing for businesses. This building adds value to the rest of the 40 acre complex. Grand, modern in appearance and comfortable inside--it completes the vision of Dr. Schuller for a modern church. Very well done.


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