The architect Charles Gwathmey has died at 71 after a prolific and bewilderingly erratic career that, despite his absence, isn’t quite over yet. Some of his major designs are still under construction, including the muscle-bound U.S. Mission to the United Nations and a doggedly hyperluxurious Fifth Avenue residential tower. In the sixties, Gwathmey was a member of the New York Five, a gang of swaggering modernists that included John Hejduk, Richard Meier, Michael Graves, and Peter Eisenman. Gwathmey was the most urbane and adaptable of the bunch. Along with his partner Robert Siegel, with whom he founded the firm Gwathmey Siegel & Associates, he supplied castles on the beach to the East Hampton nobility, corporate high-rises, apartment renovations, as well as a stream of civic projects. Rather than brand his designs with signature mannerisms, he combined smooth elegance of execution with the willingness to be self-effacing. In revisiting Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim and Paul Rudolph’s Art and Architecture Building at Yale, he politely declined to compete with the masters. Unfortunately, when some of the juiciest projects came his way, he occasionally allowed himself an infuriating lapse of taste.
The condo’s two halves, one fronting onto West Broadway, the other onto Wooster Street, sandwich the glamorized alleyway that give the building its name. The mixture of clear, fritted, and frosted panes gives texture and liveliness to a mostly glass façade, making the building a fresh but not intrusive addition to a historic street.
Gwathmey had a healthy sense of his own architectural eminence, but some of his most successful projects were his least obtrusive. When the Guggenheim needed more space, he eventually decided that the best way to honor Frank Lloyd Wright’s flamboyance was not competition but restraint. The result was a simple blond slab that helps rationalize exhibits and otherwise retires politely into the background.
Stashing a visual arts institution in the basement of a midtown office building might not be the most obvious way to raise its visibility, but the serene white galleries feel so much more like a cloister than a warren that you forget there’s traffic rumbling overhead.
The 52-story hotel and condo isn’t even finished yet and already it feels like the sort of building they don’t make anymore. Gwathmey was always dapperly clad, and so are most of his buildings — this one in sumptuous limestone, with windows angled to create a tweedy pattern.
It’s hard to remember now, but the notion of headquartering a financial institution in a glass tower at Times Square once seemed slightly lunatic. Gwathmey’s building, completed in 1990, made the point that if the suits were coming to the carnival, it should be in a building with a dash of architectural razzmatazz.
Gwathmey came to fame with the Hamptons house he designed for his parents in 1965. In this modest but classic work he established an East End aesthetic, a severe and ravishing arrangement of abstract lines and planes that seemed instantly native to the dunes.