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A wider shade of pale

No longer locked into his white period (the Getty et al), Richard Meier has adopted new clients and a broader palette, one that opens up to the geography.

July 23, 2006|Christopher Hawthorne | Times Staff Writer

RICHARD MEIER did not look pleased.

Sitting at a corner table in the Getty Center's main restaurant, where he stops off for a meal every time he visits Los Angeles, the white-haired architect was discussing two of his least-favorite topics. The first was the decision by Atlanta's High Museum of Art, which occupies one of Meier's best-known buildings, to hire the Italian architect Renzo Piano to design an extensive new wing that opened last fall.

"I was upset that they didn't ask me to do it or even ask my advice about it," said Meier. "Of course."

Next was an equally touchy subject: the garden at the Getty designed by Robert Irwin, the artist with whom Meier famously clashed. Asked if he'd managed to put the feud behind him, Meier shook his head.

"I never go down there," he said of the garden, which Irwin designed in part to subvert what he saw as the self-importance of Meier's museum. "I don't even look down there."

Meier could take solace, at least, in the fact that the two topics were so clearly part of his professional past. Completed in 1983, the High Museum was the pinnacle of the first act of his career, when he was a darling of critics and academics alike, known for houses and museums executed in an all-white Modernism so abstemious that it bordered on a kind of fundamentalism.

The Getty -- well, the Getty qualifies as a second act all by itself. The project took nearly 15 years from start to finish, cost a cool billion dollars and led Meier, in adding huge chunks of travertine to the museum buildings, to experiment on a grand scale with texture and, however subtly, with color. It was also the catalyst for a broad debate in Los Angeles about the kind of monuments the city wanted or needed as it approached the 21st century.

Now, nearly a decade after the museum opened, Meier, at 71, is well into his third act. As the High Museum snub makes clear, his New York-based firm, Richard Meier & Partners, is no longer a sought-after designer of marquee cultural buildings.

But Meier, in the meantime, has steadily been winning over new kinds of clients, particularly condo developers and public agencies, to the extent that his influence on American cities is greater now than it has ever been. With his Perry Street and Charles Street condo towers in New York, courthouses on Long Island and in Phoenix and a city hall in San Jose, he has benefited from -- but also surely helped drive -- the new interest among real estate developers and government agencies in using prominent architects to market their projects.

Flush with Southern California commissions, the firm is also poised to make a significant mark on the cityscape here for the first time since the Getty. Some of the local projects, such as a beach house in Malibu and a steakhouse, Cut, inside the Regent Beverly Wilshire hotel, are smallish ones typical of the work Meier & Partners did on the West Coast in the years after the Getty opened. But they've been joined by a number of forthcoming buildings on prominent sites, including the Broad Art Center at UCLA, a federal courthouse in San Diego and a complex in Beverly Hills that will hold 252 luxury condominiums.

The Broad Center, which is being built atop the shell of the old Dickson Art Center by William Pereira, is set to open in the fall. On its southern facade, it will replace Pereira's heavy precast concrete forms, damaged in the 1994 Northridge earthquake, with delicate wood sunscreens. On the opposite side, the windows will be huge and largely uncovered, allowing its floor-through art studios to be flooded in softer northern light.

The size and diversity of the local commissions reflect the growing role of Michael Palladino, the 52-year-old architect who runs Meier & Partners' Los Angeles office. Palladino, who moved here in 1986 when he was 31 to help oversee the Getty Center project, has long enjoyed a reputation mostly as a useful foil, savvy and affable, for Meier. Until James Crawford, an architect in the L.A. office, was elevated earlier this year, Palladino was Meier's only full partner.

West Coast distinction

BUT in recent years Palladino, who now oversees a staff of 30 (compared with 50 employees in New York) has developed his own substantial reputation. Clients in California -- and in Philadelphia, where Palladino has designed a 43-story residential tower, known as Mandeville Place, on the Schuylkill River -- now seek him out directly. If he has yet to develop a style wholly distinct from Meier, the younger architect and the rest of the L.A. office have undoubtedly helped accelerate the firm's turn, which began with the Getty, away from the purity -- some would say severity -- of its early work.

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