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Sunday, August 9, 2009

Five Minus Two

Architect Charles Gwathmey died on August 3, 2009 at the age of 71. I didn't know Gwathmey (Charlie as he was commonly known) personally and didn't work at his office; some of my former bosses and friends worked at Gwathmey & Siegel. Nevertheless Gwathmey has left strong impressions on me.

The first time I encountered Gwathmey was through his work, namely Whig Hall at Princeton University when I was a freshman there. Whig Hall is one of a pair of identical neoclassical buildings situated just behind Nassau Hall. In 1969 a fire destroyed all but the exterior of Whig Hall. Gwathmey was hired to renovate the building. Instead of simply restoring the building he carved out a side of the building and inserted several white volumes in the Corbusian language.

The combination of modernist and classical language makes Whig Hall a very unique building, not only as a standout on the more classically oriented campus of Princeton, but a prime example of how classical buildings can be transformed and enhanced.

The second time I encountered Gwathmey was also during my freshman year in college. A businessman in Taipei, Mr. Chen, commissioned Gwathmey to design a house for his family and my father was asked to be the associate architect. When my father was in New York to meet with Gwathmey to discuss the design, I went with him. At that time, I had not decided to study architecture, but I was curious to see Gwathmey's design and his office. Gwathmey's office was actually the first mid-size architectural office in New York I ever visited. The firm is located near the western edge of Manhattan in a converted industrial loft. My first impression of Gwathmey was he didn't fit my image of an architect that was formed from photographs in books and magazines. Instead of a suit and a tie, Gwathmey was dressed in a white Ralph Lauren polo shirt with blue jeans. He was very athletic-looking with broad shoulders. The visit with Gwathmey and seeing his office established a new image of an architect in my mind.

The Chen House was a unique project in Gwathmey's portfolio. Because of requirements in the program and zoning, it has four levels of basement and five-levels above grade. It is like a typical large Gwathmey house but turned ninety degrees vertically. The project allowed Gwathmey to investigate new spatial relationships. I still remember vividly how excited Gwathmey was when he was describing the atrium with the spiral stairs. It is unfortunate the house was never built and remains as one of Gwathmey's more interesting projects.

Gwathmey was a member of the New York Five and he established his reputation very early in the 1960's when he was still in his 20's. He is one of the very few architects in the world where his earliest works, namely the house and studio for his parents in Long Island, remain as his masterpiece. In his long career he produced a few questionable designs, such as the apartment tower at Astor Place in New York City. Nevertheless, he created many memorable designs ranging from educational buildings, museums, office interiors, and residential buildings. His design of tableware, the Tuxedo collection, for Swid Powell remains a favorite of mine. In fact I still use the mug from the collection for my coffee every morning.

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