We have all at least heard of the New York Five, a group of provocative architects who were the standard-bearers of neo-modernism, each one of them a unique individual, each one of them obedient to a common dogma. Personally, I like to think of them as the characters of a Saturday morning cartoon show or a boy-band. Just think. It totally works:
The Quiet One
The Tough One
The Funny One
The Cute One
The Nerdy One
I’ll let you guess which one I think is which. Of course, Arthur Drexler is Simon Cowell.
But on a more serious note, this month we lost Charles Gwathmey at 71 to esophageal cancer and while he may not have been the most famous of the Five, he was part of a movement that defined a lot about what architecture is today, especially in the United States. Gwathmey was born in 1938 in Charlotte, North Carolina. He did his undergraduate degree at Penn and got his masters from Yale. His first major work was the house he designed for his parents in the mid 1960’s:
This work, unlike so many early modernist works of the 1920s and 30s, is not additive, but subtractive. When looking at any Le Corbusier work you’ll see his theories of the basic Roman forms connecting to create a whole, but here in the Gwathmey House you’ll see that the building was already a whole, to which the cuts have been made and portions removed so that we may live in the nook. Like a bird living in a tree or marble as it is chipped away to become a sculpture. Where modernism stopped there the Five began.
Probably the most famous of all his works was the addition to the Guggenheim Museum in New York, originally designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and opened in 1959 (Wright had died six months before the official grand opening). In the early 1990’s Gwathmey Siegel & Associates Architects LLC was commissioned to make an addition to the iconic building and the controversy was rampant. There were some who would have preferred an entirely new building built to house the over-flowing connection somewhere else rather than an addition to the pre-existing. When Gwathmey and Siegel’s scheme was revealed the collective snickering response was:
“They’ve made the Guggenheim into a toilet”
(This was especially true for me, because I was seven at the time and anything that has to do with a toilet was, is, and will forever be, hysterical.)
However! If we look past the one-liner, we can see that by creating an addition specifically different in form, texture, philosophy and soul, Gwathmey wanted to create a balance for the Guggenheim. Gwathmey put up something so radically unlike the original that no one would ever confuse them. By creating a building that is a humble backdrop (though he would never agree that the addition is either humble or a backdrop), Gwathmey may have saved Frank Lloyd Wright’s magnum opus the shame of having a pretentious copy built next to it. Can’t you just see it? Just lying there, embarrassing everyone who would have had to walk by. Love it or hate it you have to admit Gwathmey was wise not to try and imitate or intimidate a master.
As for his affiliation with the New York five, they went the way all boy-bands go. One of them flirts with an equally volatile pop-singer who drives a wedge in the group (I’m looking at YOU Michael Graves/Postmodernism) and eventually they all break off and start solo-careers. Some of them can escape the Teen Scene (Architectural Record), Tiger Beat (Harvard Design Magazine) and, god help you, BOP (Architectural Digest) posters but most can never shake what they used to be. But Gwathmey didn’t want to, like Richard Meier, he truly believed that modernism holds the answers to Architecture. This is not to say his style didn’t evolve and mature, but he never lost what the New York Five was really about.
Also, in case you were wondering:
In that order specifically.
R.I.P. Charlie you'll be missed.