Charles Gwathmey, 1938-2009

Charles Gwathmey, 1938-2009

Gwathmey at the de Menil Residence, East Hampton (1983).
Norman McGrath

Charles Gwathmey, a member of the New York Five and a principal of Gwathmey Siegel & Associates, died on August 3 at age 71, leaving a legacy of meticulously conceived modernist designs. Gwathmey launched his career with a house for his parents, completed in 1966, and went on to win major New York projects including the 1982 renovation and addition to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, and the International Center for Photography in 2001. Here, his longtime colleague and friend recalls an architect with passionate convictions, a keen sense of form, and a generous spirit.

Robert Siegel, principal, Gwathmey Siegel & Associates
The High School of Music and Art, where Charles and I met in the 1950s, was a natural place for an aspiring architect, particularly one who was surrounded by artists—friends of his father Robert Gwathmey, a painter, and of his mother Rosalie, a photographer and textile designer—throughout his West Village childhood. Early in his years at Music and Art, during a summer break, Charles’ parents took him on an extended trip through Europe, where he was encouraged to look carefully, to sketch, and to think about the things he was exposed to. Charles brought these lessons back with him, and during his senior yearhe selected a class in architecture. He went on to produce the most amazing architectural drawings. He somehow knew all the symbols, the way to hand-letter, how to arrange a technical drawing, and his documents became models that others would try to emulate. Charles was committed to becoming an architect at a very early age.

His passion for the arts and for architecture developed along with another personal aspect that was hard to ignore: Charles’ physical nature. Just as his mind craved a sense of formal order and attention to the smallest detail related to the creative process, it transferred over to his body. He developed a perfectly sculpted physique. Charlie had muscles; I mean impressive, perfectly proportioned muscles. He was very strong, could lift enormous weights, climb a rope to the ceiling in a sitting position, do 1,300 sit-ups in 10 minutes. He dressed impeccably, never wanting to carry a cell phone or wallet that would disrupt the line of the garment. And he was very handsome and charming.

After completing our architectural education, Charlie and I met up again in the office of Edward Barnes, during the time that Ed was receiving wonderful commissions. Our work there ultimately resulted in our coming together as partners, initially with Richard Henderson, and subsequently as our own firm. For the past 41 years, Charles and I have collaborated, often sharing a desk, sitting face to face drawing and discussing design ideas.

We have completed over four hundred projects, but more than any other building type, it was the exploration of the single-family residence, initially summarized in the Amagansett home for his parents, which Charles and Richard completed in 1966, that set the foundation for and shaped many of the architectural principles around which the work of our firm revolved. The original, 1,200-square-foot residence, designed on a tight budget, began with primary geometrical forms and inventively carved them away, responding to the needs of site, program, and structure. The result, with a double-height living space on the second floor, was a great learning project and a groundbreaking work of rural house architecture.

Charles refined his residential work in projects like the Taft Residence in Cincinnati (1977), which consolidated his discoveries about program and volume in a sequence of open and unfolding exterior spaces and dramatic, frame-like devices. These projects led to the standout de Menil Residence in East Hampton (1983). A much larger and richer project, the house features skylit, cross-axial spaces and an ingenious brise soleil, which acts variously as frame, screen, and scale device, anchoring the house in the landscape.

Charlie had strong convictions, was passionate about certain things, and was not the type to walk away from confrontation. This characteristic followed him throughout his career with mixed results, but one always knew where he stood on important issues. At heart, Charles was a very kind and caring person. He detested prejudice of any type. He was a mentor for aspiring architects, and he extended financial help to those less fortunate, and who were trying to do something that he thought worthy. He was a friend you could count on.

Above all, Charles and I looked forward to and enjoyed being with each other every day, despite the complexities of life and the pressures inherent in the practice of architecture. Architecture was his life, and it was what he cared about until the last moment. I will miss him dearly.

A version of this article appeared in AN 09.09.2009.