The modernist architect Charles Gwathmey ARC ’62, who oversaw the restoration of the Art & Architecture Building and the construction of the Loria Center for the History of Art, died Monday at the age of 71. His fellow architect and longtime friend Robert A.M. Stern ARC ’65, the dean of the Yale School of Architecture, reflected on Gwathmey’s work, his life and his legacy in a conversation with the News on Wednesday.
The News: People know about Charles Gwathmey as an architect, but tell us about Charles Gwathmey as a person.
Stern: I knew him since I started architecture school and many people thought he was a tough guy. But really he was a very gentle person — the nicest possible friend to have, always considerate about other people. He couldn’t do enough for them.
Looking back at Gwathmey’s work, how would you interpret the wide range seen in his architectural style?
Gwathmey was one of the most talented architects of his generation. He kept true to his early beliefs: he had an early love affair with Le Corbusier’s work from the 1920s — the pure geometry of cones and cylinders. He kept faith with that geometry and aesthetic, which he developed first in the house of his parents and kept true all the way through his career, especially in the residential architecture he is best known for.
What will be his legacy in architecture?
That’s always hard to know. The second part of his legacy [after his residential work] is I think more controversial. As an architect he was responsible for some of the most difficult interventions to architectural masterpieces: Le Corbusier’s Carpenter Center at Harvard, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum and [Gwathmey’s] concluding work for Paul Rudolph’s Art & Architecture Building at Yale.
Nine months after the rededication of Rudolph Hall, how do you view the critique of Gwathmey’s restoration and of his design of the Loria Center for the History of Art? What are their strengths and weaknesses?
The strengths of Rudolph Hall’s restoration are unquestioned. Gwathmey brought it back to life — he gave it life. He cleared away the cobwebs of neglect with the consummate mastery of someone who knows when to show his own style and when to defer to someone else’s style. It was brilliant work. About the Loria Center: Not everyone is completely comfortable with it. It is definitely a building with its own character but one that doesn’t threaten or elbow its way in relation to Rudolph’s building. It is strong but not overly oppressive. People change their minds over time. Back when it was built, the Beinecke [Rare Book and Manuscript Library] was detested. Absolutely detested. Now every tourist wants to go there. … I think time will deal more kindly with the Loria Center.
You and Gwathmey are two of the pillars of the New York architecture scene. How was he seen in architectural circles?
He enjoyed tremendous respect and popularity in architecture circles, but he was not one to hang around architects all the time. He had a diverse circle. He had artist friends. He was close friends with Ralph Lauren. He also became tremendous friends with his clients — they adored him. Mr. Dell of the computer company, Jerry Seinfeld, Steven Spielberg, these were some of his clients.
Were you aware that Gwathmey was sick?
I was aware about a year ago that he was battling esophageal cancer, but they thought the treatment would make him live for years and years. He was optimistic to the end.
What was your relationship like with Gwathmey over the years?
Charles worked out in the gym all the time, while I was a classic 90-pound weakling. When he saw me at the gym he used to laugh and say, “Bob, how ya doin’?” I’m only exaggerating, of course, but he was a complete physical fitness nut and was in great shape all his life. He was an incredible athlete and also the kind of person who liked to slap you on the back and wanted to know how other people were doing, but he also wanted you to call him every once in a while and say, “Charlie, how are you doing?” … Gwathmey was a perfect gentleman. A perfect sweetheart. I’m a little younger than him and I was in awe of him a student, but then — the irony of it — I became his client. That could have been hell for both of us, but it turned out to be wonderful.