- The Washington Times - Friday, August 7, 2009

New York architect Charles Gwathmey, who died of esophageal cancer Monday at age 71, wasn’t shy about telling off his critics.

He routinely responded to reviews of his buildings by sending letters filled with vituperative remarks. Yet recipients of his comments, myself included, couldn’t help but admire his deep commitment to the art of architecture.

Mr. Gwathmey was a fiercely stubborn defender of modernism even when historicism became fashionable. He started out in the 1960s as part of the New York Five, a group of architects inspired by the streamlined 1920s and ‘30s buildings designed by the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier.

Though not as recognizable a name as Target’s Michael Graves, another of the Five, Mr. Gwathmey was a star within the architecture profession who was admired for his cubist designs of houses and museums.

The neo-Corbusian approach of his early years continued to shape his work with his longtime design partner, Robert Siegel, over four decades.

The two founded their firm, Gwathmey Siegel & Associates Architects, in 1968 and garnered some of the most coveted building commissions in the country. Their design portfolio includes the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, under construction in Manhattan; the Busch-Reisinger Museum and Fine Arts Library at Harvard; the International Center of Photography in New York; and the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.

“Although we closely collaborated on projects, the work has always been represented as being by Charles,” Mr. Siegel said by telephone. “We’ve lost a very creative person and an incredible spokesman for the work of the firm. It will be an interesting challenge going forward.”

Born in Charlotte, N.C., Mr. Gwathmey was raised in New York City, where he attended high school with Mr. Siegel. He earned a master’s degree in architecture from Yale in 1962 and three years later designed the project that would launch his career — a house and a studio in Amagansett, N.Y., for his parents, painter Robert Gwathmey and his photographer wife, Rosalie. These habitable sculptures composed of cylinders, triangles and blocks remain the architect’s most brilliant works.

“They appear to be carved from a solid, rather than the result of an additive assemblage,” Mr. Gwathmey wrote of the paired cedar-clad structures. He went on to renovate them after inheriting the property from his mother, who died in 2001.

From his parents’ home, Mr. Gwathmey moved on to designing clean-lined, well-planned houses for the rich and famous. His wealthy clients included Hollywood moguls Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen; actress Faye Dunaway; and comedian Jerry Seinfeld.

Talk-show maven Oprah Winfrey once considered hiring Mr. Gwathmey to renovate her Chicago residence but reportedly found his designs too austere for her taste.

In 2006, Mr. Gwathmey completed Glenstone on 125 acres in Potomac. The lavish residential and private museum complex was built for industrialist and art collector Mitchell P. Rales, who serves on the boards of the Hirshhorn Museum and National Gallery of Art.

The estate is the architect’s only project in the Washington area, and its geometric architecture well represents his modernist aesthetic.

Among his last designs are houses for Mr. Rales being built in Maine and on the Caribbean island of St. Bart’s, according to Mr. Siegel.

Although he was thin-skinned when it came to criticism, the bald, handsome Mr. Gwathmey had a tough-guy demeanor and a teasing sense of humor. He and his wife, Bette-Ann, suffered personal tragedy in 1984 when Mrs. Gwathmey’s son Robbie Steel died of cancer and again in 1986 when her daughter Courtney Steel was struck by a car in Manhattan and killed.

When it came to design, no detail was too insignificant for Mr. Gwathmey. He created furniture for his interiors and the best-selling “Tuxedo” line of china for the designer housewares company Swid Powell.

In addition to practicing architecture, Mr. Gwathmey taught and lectured at Yale, Harvard and architecture schools across the country. Anyone lucky enough to hear his critiques at student and professional design juries was impressed by his astute observations.

Sadly, some of his most prestigious building projects were his least successful. In 1992, he completed a clunky, slablike addition to the Guggenheim Museum, which detracts from Frank Lloyd Wright’s graceful spiral.

His swan song, an annex to Yale University’s Art and Architecture Building completed last year, also disappoints in its jumbled exterior.

On a smaller scale, Mr. Gwathmey was capable of mixing old and new into a cohesive blend. One outstanding example is the 1972 renovation of Princeton University’s Whig Hall, where the juxtaposition of modern and neoclassical architecture still looks fresh.

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