Charles Gwathmey, 1938-2009

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Gwathmey at the de Menil Residence, East Hampton (1983).
Norman McGrath

Charles Gwathmey, a member of the famed New York Five and a principal of Gwathmey Siegel & Associates Architects, died on Monday at age 71 after a battle with esophageal cancer. Known for meticulously conceived modernist designs influenced by Le Corbusier, Gwathmey launched his career with a house for his parents, completed in 1967, that earned him wide acclaim and would remain a touchstone throughout his career.


The Gwathmey Residence (1967)
Scott Frances/ESTO
 
 

Gwathmey and colleague Robert Siegel, who founded their office in 1968, designed major cultural projects including the American Museum of the Moving Image (1988), the renovation and addition to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation (1992), and the International Center for Photography (2001), all in New York. Recent work includes the addition and renovation of the Art and Architecture Building at Yale, the Birchfield-Penney Art Center in Buffalo, and the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, which is currently under construction.

Houses remained among the firm’s most lauded work, and remained a particular love of Gwathmey’s. “Virtually all of the residences were his lead,” said Siegel, his business partner for more than forty years. “He liked working closely with individuals.” Gwathmey’s groundbreaking house for his parents, the Gwathmey Residence and Studio in Amagansett, on Long Island, was “a great discovery project, a great learning project,” Siegel said. “That house was monumentally important for him. After that, the house for Francois de Menil [1983] stands out. It was a much larger, more complex project, much richer.”

Other longtime associates also recalled Gwathmey’s early house as his career-defining project. “When I think of Charlie, I think of the houses,” said his friend and frequent competitor Michael Graves. “His house for his parents stands as a testimony to all his work.”

Guggenheim addition (1992)
Jeff Goldberg/Esto

Gwathmey and Siegel attended high school together in Manhattan, and though they attended different universities and graduate schools—Gwathmey went to the University of Pennsylvania and Yale, while Siegel studied at Pratt Institute and Harvard—they were reunited in the office of Edward Larrabee Barnes. The two left Barnes’ office in 1968, following the success of Gwathmey’s house for his parents, which was designed in collaboration with Richard Henderson. Gwathmey quickly became the public face of the firm. “He was a great spokesman for our office, as well as for architecture in general,” Siegel said. The 40-person firm, Siegel added, will remain open.

With Peter Eisenman, John Hejduk, Richard Meier, and Michael Graves, Gwathmey was known as one of the New York Five, also called the Whites, who embarked on aesthetic, formal, and volumetric explorations of architecture and became leading figures in the 1970s and 1980s. Le Corbusier’s idea of the Modulor—a system based on the proportions of the body—was an important influence. “What we all shared was a real understanding of the human scale, and you can see that in Charlie’s work, a real interest in the public and in human interaction,” Meier told AN.

Demenil Residence (1983)
Norman McGrath

While architecture passed through stylistic phases beginning in the 1970s—including deconstructivism, postmodernism, and computer-aided design—Gwathmey remained largely consistent. “He was a fighter for Modernism,” Eisenman said.


Astor place (2005)
david sundberg/ESTO
 
Whig Hall (1971)
Timothy Hursley
 
All images courtesy Gwathmey Siegel & Associates

 

 

Behind those closely held convictions, his peers remember Gwathmey as warm, honest, generous, and collaborative. Eisenman called him the “mediator” of the World Trade Center team that included Eisenman, Meier, and Steven Holl, one of seven groups competing for the master plan of the site.

Other important projects include Whig Hall at Princeton (1971), in which the firm inserted distinctive modern volumes within the burned-out shell of a neoclassical building, the Glenstone Museum (2006) outside Washington, D.C., and the United States Mission to the United Nations, currently under construction in Manhattan.

Some of the architect’s more recent work was the target of criticism, including the residential tower at Astor Place (2005), the Guggenheim, and Yale’s Art & Architecture Building, but Eisenman saw Gwathmey’s willingness to take on such complex sites as an affirmation of his spirit.Even though he was a macho guy, he was able to sublimate his ego while working on a lot of these great projects,” Eisenman said. “I don’t think many people could do that.”

Brad Collins, principal at Group C, which created a half-dozen monographs for the firm over the past two decades, said Gwathmey never stopped working, even while recovering from a battle with lung cancer several years ago. “That’s what instilled loyalty in staff and clients,” Collins said. “Charles was incredibly demanding, but it was only because he cared so much about the work.”

Gwathmey’s honors include a 1983 Medal of Honor from the AIA New York chapter and a lifetime achievement award from the New York State Society of Architects. Gwathmey also taught at architecture schools including Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Pratt, and Cooper Union, and was president of the board of trustees at the Institute of Architecture and Urban Studies, the experimental New York school that drew many luminaries from 1967 to 1984.

Readers are invited to share their own memories of Gwathmey by leaving a comment on the A/N Blog.

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