Play Architecture with the Whites of Contrast

July 9th, 2013

R. Meier
Douglas House
Harbor Springs


Richard Meier was born in New Jersey and was part of the group known as the “New York Five” or alternately, the “Whites” as they preferred to call themselves, because of the white facades of their houses.

Obviously influenced by Le Corbusier and others like Giuseppe Terragni and his fellow artists of Italian Rationalism, their designs look more complicated and seem to have more window play, more “strategies of intersection.” The architects of this group often played with the axis of houses, separating, turning areas, and other areas overlapping, all the variables we take for granted to today.

The four stories of the Douglas House sweep down in the landscape, all window play among the trees and a fantastic arrangement of chimneys rising up surprisingly to break the facade. There is something Medieval about those chimneys, despite their ultra-modern look. The entrance is on the top floor and the house is made of reinforced concrete. While I like the white concept generally, I’m not sure I like the extreme whiteness among the trees because it looks so man-made, there is such polarity there. Richard Meier felt this startling contrast enhanced the beauty of the natural environment. It reminds me of Wright’s Fallingwater without the colour because of the way it has been fitted in the landscape.

Here is a picture of it from my book Architecture of the 20th Century, Volume 2. The house on the left is also a Meier design called the Saltzman House, and you can see the reverberations from Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye there. Then on the right is the Douglas House from the playing card which I really like, although I’m not convinced it wouldn’t have been better in stone. In thinking about it though, it does remind me of bleached bone, perhaps an echo of the skeletons of animals from the woods. In looking at it from a distance you can see how it also looks like the white foam of a waterfall, streaking down among the trees, so I am coming around to the idea of the stark white against the trees and water.

I was a bit iffy on the outside stairs because they remind me so much of factories and industrial buildings, but that is classic from the 1920s and 1930s, and Meier wanted the stairs outside so they didn’t block the views or the sunlight. I can see this as being sensible in that setting.


Harbor Springs is a small resort community, geared to tourism, so they’ve managed to keep the landscape natural. You can just see the edge of Lake Michigan at the bottom of the slope. The openings and variations in windows are interesting. It would be a house to make you feel anchored in the landscape, part of the scene, right IN the landscape with so many balconies and outdoor niches. Yes, it would be a glorious thing to wake up there in the morning.

I was also delighted to find that Richard Meier, following the classic tradition, designs his own furniture. He has a classic chair design where the curve of the arms can be set against other chairs to create curved, flowing conversational seating. The dining table and side tables are lovely. I’m not sure what I think about the chaise, it comes in a flat model and a rocking model and reminds me of the Lilly Reich and Mies van der Rohe design of the Barcelona Chair. I understand that Mr. Meier uses furniture designed by Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe in his houses as well, and their influence is seen in his own furniture.


As I’ve mentioned in this study, I am not fond of Le Corbusier’s work with the exception of the Villa Savoye, so I was quite delighted to discover that his good design was such an influence on these fellows in the late 1960s and into the 1970s.

Richard Meier has designed office and municipal buildings, at least one church, and several museums too. Some I like, some I don’t. There is something about large, white commercial buildings with lots of same-sized windows that remind me of the high school I went to, so I find it hard to think of them as attractive.

He ran into real controversy in Rome when designing a building to cover the ancient Roman monument Ara Pacis Augustae. There is still talk of moving the building and re-erecting it elsewhere. It provides beautiful light on the monument, and the stark white of Meier’s design allows the soft colour of the stone of the monument to glow gently as you view it, so I like that section from the INSIDE at least. There is something about the juxtaposition that works.


Unfortunately, when viewed from outside, the rectangular windows are reminiscent of a car dealership and it doesn’t fit with the surrounding historical buildings. The front entrance, even with some lovely stone, reminds me of a grocery store.



As a whole I don’t care for the complex, it’s too stark. This is the middle of ancient Roma, not a suburb in North America. People scrawl ugly graffiti and criticisms over the outer walls, disturbing what could be a peaceful setting for the ancient altar, not to mention defacing the work of the architect. That I don’t agree with, but perhaps this is an architectural misjudgement on Meier’s part?

I think I prefer Richard Meier’s designs when they are smaller with more variation in windows and rotations. The Douglas House is a gem, an outstanding design that really holds up.




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