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Modernist architect Charles Gwathmey dies

Charles Gwathmey, an architect known for his influential modernist home designs and famous clients like director Steven Spielberg, has died. He was 71.Gwathmey died of cancer Monday in Manhattan, said his stepson, Eric Steel.The architect formed the firm of Gwathmey Siegel & Associates with Robert Siegel in 1968. Along with homes, their projects included a controversial overhaul and addition to Ne
/ Source: The Associated Press

Charles Gwathmey, an architect known for his influential modernist home designs and famous clients like director Steven Spielberg, has died. He was 71.

Gwathmey died of cancer Monday in Manhattan, said his stepson, Eric Steel.

The architect formed the firm of Gwathmey Siegel & Associates with Robert Siegel in 1968. Along with homes, their projects included a controversial overhaul and addition to New York’s Guggenheim Museum and other museum designs.

Gwathmey’s homes, many of them in Long Island’s wealthy Hamptons area, are notable for their unorthodox geometrical designs and complex use of space. Along with Spielberg, his clients included Jerry Seinfeld and Hollywood mogul David Geffen.

Gwathmey believed that even a relatively small home could be as important a work of architecture as a palace or skyscraper. One of his most famous was a modest dwelling he designed for his parents when he was still in his 20s.

“They’re as viable and as critical to the history of architecture as any other building,” he told PBS interviewer Charlie Rose in 2000. The best homes, he said, “have a spirituality which is unforgettable. In other words, if you went to any of those buildings, you’d remember them for your life.”

Disputes over Guggenheim project

The Guggenheim Museum project, a remodeling of and addition to Frank Lloyd Wright’s original, opened in 1992 after years of disputes and revisions.

The first version of the design would have placed a boxy rectangular building beside and above Wright’s round building. It was widely ridiculed, even likened to the shape of a toilet.

After the design was revised, the addition became less imposing. But it was the firm’s changes to the museum’s interior, improving the experience for museum-goers, that drew the most praise.

“The slab (addition) is a bland and only slightly annoying intrusion, while Gwathmey’s intelligent, intricate, loving work inside is a revelation, making it a far, far better museum than it has ever been,” Time magazine wrote.

The New York Times said the architects had restored Wright’s vision, and “now the glory of his joyous, sensual, intricate, mischievous and finally uplifting interior spaces can be perceived as never before.”

Among other projects the firm worked on were the International Center of Photography, also in Manhattan, and the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.

Gwathmey said he tried to make museum interiors as interesting as the works on display.

“I think the experience is enriched by having both the architecture and what is exhibited strong,” he told Rose. “So I’m not one of these sort of ‘background architecture’ advocates for museums.”

Painter, photographer parents

Gwathmey was born in 1938, the only child of painter Robert Gwathmey and his wife, Rosalie, a photographer. Both parents were noted for their social consciousness; his father painted laborers and sharecroppers and his mother took a notable series of photographs in the 1940s of Southern black communities.

“My exposure to visual art all my life was intensive,” Gwathmey told The New York Times in 1993. He recalled drawing lessons where he had to redo his work again and again, and a sabbatical in France where “we visited every cathedral and every chateau.”

Gwathmey earned a master’s degree in architecture in 1962 from Yale University. One of his first design projects was a home for his parents, built in Amagansett, N.Y., in the mid-1960s. It brought wide notice to the young architect and helped launch his career.

Gwathmey was one of a group of architects profiled in a 1972 book, “Five Architects,” that helped spotlight their design philosophy and propel them to fame.

“We wanted to prove that architecture was not only about image, but about idea,” Gwathmey said in 1996.

Another of “The Five,” as they came to be known, was Michael Graves, now a household name through his product designs for Target stores.

The Gwathmey-Siegel firm also tried its hand at housewares. According to a 1986 Los Angeles Times article, its black and white “Tuxedo” china plate design for the Swid Powell company “has been such a runaway best-seller ... that the service has been expanded to include other dinnerware pieces.”