Splendor in the Grass

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Gwathmey Residence, Charles Gwathmey, 1966

Gwathmey Residence, Charles Gwathmey, 1966

One other event that took place while I was away in August, the death of the architect Charles Gwathmey. It was just last fall that I had lunch with Gwathmey and Robert A. M. Stern, the dean of architecture at Yale, to talk about the beautifully refurbished Art and Architecture building on the Yale campus, a Paul Rudolph masterpiece from 1963. Gwathmey had presided over the restoration of the Rudolph building and had also designed new spaces next door to house Yale’s department of art history and a new arts library. At lunch that day Gwathmey looked his usual robust self, but as I now know he was already struggling with the esophogeal cancer that caused his death earlier this month.

When I heard about his death I immediately thought back to the late 1970s, when I was in my 20s. At the time I was a frequent weekend guest — now there’s a dreaded term, “frequent weekend guest” — with friends who had a house in Amangansett, N.Y. Two houses down from them were Gwathmey’s parents, who were both artists. At their invitation we would occasionally come by to visit and use the Gwathmey pool. I didn’t care about the pool. I cared about seeing the Gwathmey house — by the time I got there it actually consisted of two structures, a house and a separate painting studio — which had been designed by their son when he was in his 20s and had been famous almost as soon as it was completed in 1966.

It wasn’t just a house but an argument, a polemic about what architecture should be. Modernism was an argument too, and by the late ’70s it had descended for years into a losing proposal, one that was bland and boxy and would very soon be overtaken by a postmodernism that would try to redeem it by way of crappy “historical” silhouettes and detailing pasted on to the same old boxes.

Even then I knew that the Gwathmey house represented an assertion that the old Modernism still had a lot of life in it. He wasn’t much interested in the utopian, urbanist side of Modernism. It was the aesthetic possibilities, the formal splendors that could be teased out of cubes and cylinders, voids and solids, that he loved. As compact as a pocket handkerchief but as complicated as a computer chip, the house sat on its flat stretch of green lawn like sculpture that you could live in. Like the later (1973) and in some ways similar Herbert F. Johnson Museum at Cornell, by I.M. Pei, I always think of it as something that swept clean my brain and reset my thinking.