Charles Gwathmey 1938-2009 Gwathmey died Aug. 3 in New York City at age 71.
Photo at left by Rosa Rivera; photo at right courtesy Gwathmey Siegel & Associates Architects
Charles Gwathmey – Charlie, as most people called him – started off his career with a bang. Like two other giants of the American arts, Orson Wells and Norman Mailer, Charlie produced a masterpiece while he was still in his 20s. After graduating from Yale, Charlie traveled through Europe where he was able to experience first-hand the works of his most admired Modernist master, Le Corbusier. Upon his return, he designed a house for his parents in Long Island in 1965. It was a remarkable reinterpretation of Le Corbusier’s European vein of Modern architecture that incorporated elements of the American vernacular. A simple and unapologetically Modern structure built with wood frame and cedar siding, the house had the basic traits that marked his entire career—the interlocking and carving of volumes, the abstract composition, the use of the grid and platonic forms, the attention to detail, and the idea of the contrasting object in the landscape. The house achieved iconic status and secured his place in the history of American architecture. Unlike most great architects of his generation, Charlie did not consider his early residential work as just a springboard for larger, public commissions. Like Frank Lloyd Wright, he found himself at ease changing scales, enjoying as much the interior design of an apartment as the design of a museum or a skyscraper. Nonetheless, for him the residential work was the perfect milieu to try new formal explorations and to refine his Modernist credo. For this, Charlie sought out the complicity of his clients, offering
his passion and educating them, responding to their needs and befriending them. Charlie had tremendous dedication to his craft, and a strong and charismatic personality. His intense talent found the right stability both in his long marriage to wife Bette-Ann and in his professional partnership with Robert Siegel for more than 40 years. The firm they created, Gwathmey Siegel, is not only renowned for the quality of its architecture, but also because it is exemplary as a well-run, professional office. I experienced it everyday during the five years I worked there. Charlie was able to focus his energy and stay intricately involved in all phases of the work, the way one normally assumes happens only in smaller offices. He also found time to lecture and teach (I was his student at Yale almost 20 years ago) and was particularly fond of mentoring young architects. In addition to his magnificent houses, Gwathmey Siegel’s most significant contribution has been the rich legacy of campus architecture in colleges across the U.S. From the small intervention in Whig Hall at Princeton University in 1970, to the large Tangeman Student Center at the University of Cincinnati, Gwathmey Siegel has tackled every building type in campus architecture. With pragmatism and uncanny ability to resolve complex programmatic requirements, the firm has been able to adapt to a variety of conditions and a range of budgets to produce a remarkable collection of buildings. Despite the large number of quiet successes in his portfolio, Charles Gwathmey’s name will always be associated with two of his most publicly debated projects—the addition and renovation of the Guggenheim Museum
(left) The author and Gwathmey during a recent visit to Austin. (right) The residence for Michael and Susan Dell in Austin, completed in 1996, exemplifies the Modernist ethos that Gwathmey maintained throughout his career.
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in New York and of the Art and Architecture Building at Yale University. Charlie embraced both of these commissions, fully aware of the challenges in front of him, each a “no win situation,” as he used to say. These two buildings, the first by Frank Lloyd Wright and the second by Paul Rudolph, are now considered two landmarks of American architecture of the twentieth century, yet they both were very controversial when they were originally built. Charlie’s interventions were controversial as well: although critics praised the restorations, the additions themselves were criticized for different reasons. The addition to Rudolph’s building is still very recent, while the Guggenheim addition feels with time more and more appropriate. Charlie’s relationship with Texas started in the 1970s when he taught at the University of Texas at Austin, he also lectured there several times, the last one in 2007. He loved Texas barbeque and the Longhorn T-shirts. I remember going to the Co-op with him looking for a very specific T-shirt to replace a worn-out one he had had for almost 20 years. Charlie’s most important work in Texas belongs to the residential category. His several projects for Michael and Susan Dell spanned a 15-year relationship that often brought him to Texas. The house he designed for the Dells in the early 1990s was unprecedented in Austin, both in scope and expectations. It raised the bar across the board for everybody involved, from contractors to consultants, and it has benefited architects practicing modern architecture in Central Texas today. Charlie was my mentor, my friend. I enjoyed immensely working with him, his drive, his intensity, and his discipline. He introduced me to my professional partner Miguel Rivera and he is responsible for the fact that I call Texas home. (I was the project architect for the Dell house and he asked me to move to Austin to oversee the construction.) Two years ago Charlie and Bette-Ann visited my wife, Rosa, and me in Madrid. We celebrated his birthday and went to see a wonderful exhibition of paintings of his beloved Le Corbusier. He was as strong and enthusiastic as usual—little did we know that a cancer was lurking. His architecture is his legacy for the world, but for those of us who had the privilege of knowing him, we will always treasure a genuinely good person with a wonderful smile. J u a n
M i r ó ,
t e x a s
a r c h i t e c t