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Charles Gwathmey

By Peter Eisenman

Charles Gwathmey: architect; colleague; friend. These are the three ways that I knew Charles. Each is different. Each describes a complex facet of a man who on the surface was a very straightforward, handsome, radiant, “macho” person, but who often, in his southern accent, spoke with an occasional stutter that belied his seeming bravura. For underneath that assured exterior, Charles was a pussycat. In one sense, Charles was at heart a southern gentleman with a quixotic manner—sometime Lothario, devoted husband, loyal friend. This other, uncertain side most revealed itself in that halting speech mannerism especially when lecturing, which belied the fragile nature of the humanity that haunted his several personal tragedies, including the untimely loss of two children and several bouts with physical illness. But Charles was too proud, too conscious of his being, to allow these tragedies to alter the world’s perception of him.

As an architect Charles will be remembered for three categories of building: his seminal houses, his impeccable interiors, and his self-effacing if not controversial additions to four different iconic buildings: Whig Hall in Princeton; the Guggenheim Museum in New York; the Fogg Museum at Harvard; and his final work, the Loria Hall addition to the Art and Architecture Building at Yale.

However, it was probably at the small scale of the individual house that he was most confident. The early house and studio for his parents became an instant classic, and remains an icon of the shift from the purity of the white forms of his colleagues to a vertical gray siding. The house articulated a conflict that would continually surface between his Yale “shingle style” education and his modernist beliefs, which were instilled in him in his childhood. But it was with his interiors that he reached a special maturity, developing a palette of innovative detail and craft that was full of design ingenuity. In these interiors Charles forged a synthesis between postmodern tastes and his modernist idealism.

As colleagues we went through several incarnations as well, from the heady days of the late 1960s and early ’70s of the New York Five (John Hejduk, Richard Meier, Michael Graves, Charles, and myself) to our teaching, lecturing, and many juries—from Yale and Princeton to Notre Dame and Iowa—to our last collaboration on the World Trade Center Design Proposal Competition with Richard Meier and Steven Holl. Charles was a compassionate and insightful critic and teacher. He would often come to my reviews at Yale or Princeton as a gesture of camaraderie. As he was not an abstract thinker (he was a doer and a maker), the theoretical nature of the review was often outside of his interests. Yet he was always encouraging with students. Charles also never pulled any punches with his peers. He always called it like it was. At the same time, he was often stung by public criticism. This was his great paradox: a strong persona and an uncertain ego. Yet only a person able to sublimate his ego could have undertaken what are four of the highpoints of his career.

For Whig Hall at Princeton he placed a modernist object in a neoclassical shell—a brilliant tour de force. At the Guggenheim he did what Wright wanted to do—almost. There is still the sense that Gwathmey again inserted a modernist abstraction inside a Wrightian expressionism. The Fogg at Harvard followed in a similar vein. It was only when we come to Yale that a final oedipal encounter with his mentor Paul Rudolph occurs. There was no way for Charles to win. Neither contrast nor sublimation would work here. But as his illness and this work consumed the last two years of his life, there were still victories to be gained. The subtle weaving of a diptych, a binuclear plan pivoting on a single circular column is a masterful stroke. Alas our critics today can only see surface, and the plan is overlooked. The addition to the A+A Building was both his most controversial and perhaps even the most flawed project of his oeuvre. He believed in the modern, and even though tempted by the times to stray from this past, he remained true to his convictions.

Finally, and perhaps most important, Charles, more than any other architect, taught me that subtle distinction between colleague and friend. Through some tough times for both of us, both professionally and personally, Charles was someone I could talk to, even ask for help. He was always there to cover one’s back. Charles’s loyalty to his beliefs, to his friends, and to his family mark him as a courageous human being and, ultimately, a man of purpose and conviction, qualities so difficult to sustain in our time. We will miss him.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters