An Interview With Charles Gwathmey
Gwathmey is a principal with Gwathmey Siegel & Associates Architects in New York City. His firm designed the addition to the Guggenheim Museum and the U.S. Mission to the UN.
When I go to a new city, the first thing I do is visit its great cathedral, château, or museum. I don’t go just to see what’s inside those buildings; I also go to understand a place and the people who lived there. The more you can see a piece of architecture as an art form—not just a structure with a function—the more dynamic and enriched your perception of any culture will be.
• __ Look for what moves you.__ Appreciating architecture is intuitive. Buildings can make you feel many things: threatened, awed, and uplifted. Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library in Florence is a tiny room with a grand staircase. It is both monumental and incredibly intimate. I’ve seen people who don’t know anything about architecture walk in the door and just freeze in awe.
• __ Read the past.__ Architecture is a record of a culture’s history, and you feel the past through what’s left of those buildings. When you see Roman ruins, for example, you might have no idea what happened there, but because of the scale and grandeur of those structures, you can feel the presence of that time. They memorialize a great empire.
• __ Scale matters.__ Notice what buildings draw your gaze. Traditionally, cathedrals were the most important structures in the city, and their domes and spires commanded attention. When you look at Paris, the roofline of most buildings is seven stories, but the Opera dome and the Eiffel Tower break that line and become significant focal points and points of reference.
• __ Notice a contrast.__ Much of the best modern architecture is a daring counterpoint to what surrounds it. Paris’s Pompidou Centre, for example, was an avant-garde museum completed in 1977 in a great old plaza. It makes you see the traditional architecture around it in a whole new way. It also demonstrated how new architecture could enrich the legacy of a great city.
• __ Seek it out.__ I think the most important thing to do is just to experience buildings yourself and discover what moves you. My favorite architects of all time are Brunelleschi, Michelangelo, Louis Kahn, Le Corbusier, and Frank Lloyd Wright, and of course there are a lot of living architects who are taking risks and doing great work, such as Norman Foster, Tadao Ando, and Frank Gehry.
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