Eisenman, Graves, Gwathmey, Hejduk and Meier. Another one of Washington's countless law firms? Fortunately not. These are the names of five architects who, while perhaps unknown to many readers of The Washington Post, are instantly recognized within the subculture of architecture.
Four of these architects -- Peter Eisenman, Michael Graves, Charles Gwathmey and Richard Meier -- each delivered a lecture to overflow crowds at the University of Maryland School of Architecture during its fall 1992 lecture series, "Five Architects -- Twenty Years Later." Ill health prevented John Hejduk from appearing.
This lecture series, founded by Washington architect Dhiru Thadani, makes reference to and commemorates a landmark book, "Five Architects," published in 1972. The book presented two projects by each of the architects, later referred to as the "New York Five," who once had much in common.
All were teaching while maintaining modest architectural practices, mostly designing houses. All were linked academically to a handful of East Coast architectural schools around New York -- Princeton, Columbia, Cornell and Cooper Union. In age, each was near 40, plus or minus a few years. At the time, all were intellectually committed to exploring modernist architectural ideology derived from the work of early 20th century European modernists, especially Le Corbusier.
These modern-movement ideas were among those of interest to the five architects:
Rejection of representational historicist imagery and ornamentation.
Spatial and geometric complexity.
Transparency and ambiguity -- blurring boundaries between rooms and between interior and exterior.
Use of planes and pure geometric volumes -- cubic and sometimes cylindrical; manipulation of two- and three-dimensional compositional systems -- such as grid patterns -- to modulate space, structure and surface.
The work of the "New York Five," though a continuation of a 50-year-old ideology, was admired 20 years ago as refreshingly experimental and avant garde. The ideology seemed to rekindle fires of architectural idealism thought to have burned out during the 1930s.
Consequently, the 1972 book "had an immediate and potent influence on architecture and architectural education," writes Steven Hurtt, dean of Maryland's School of Architecture, in the lecture series catalogue. Today the fame of these architects, the national and international recognition accorded them through awards and publications, affirms Hurtt's observation.
For readers of The Washington Post, this may be hard to appreciate, since none of these architects has built in Washington. Indeed, Hejduk has built few buildings and is known primarily for his teaching at Cooper Union and for his theoretical writing, drawing and design. Hejduk, a highly respected educator, is considered the "poet" of the group.
Graves, perhaps the most famous of the five, hit the big time in 1979 when his postmodernist design -- a polychromatic edifice decorated with giant, abstracted keystones, medallions and pilasters -- won the competition for the Portland, Ore., municipal building.
Unlike the other four architects, Graves switched philosophies after he became increasingly interested in more figurative, historically referential architecture. He sought to replace abstract metaphors with easy-to-read metaphors, a move toward "narrative" design.
Forsaking Le Corbusier for Mediterranean classicism -- mostly Italian and Egyptian -- Graves designed the San Juan Capistrano Library in California, the Humana Health Care Corp. headquarters building in Louisville, a winery in California, several museums, and Walt Disney Co.'s Swan and Dolphin hotels in Orlando, Fla.
By the late 1980s, Graves had become the Calvin Klein of architecture -- endorsing shoes, crafting furniture and designing everything from teapots and bookends to carpets and clocks.
Unlike Graves, Gwathmey and Meier never embraced the postmodernist or historicist ethic, never abandoned their interest in rigorously composed, abstract formalism inspired by Le Corbusier. They both remained steadfast in their passion for pure form, space and light. Their buildings embody systematized geometry, carved volumetric solids, layered structure and space and a concern for refined materials and detailing. Even in traditional contexts, Gwathmey and Meier adhere to their modernist grammar and vocabulary.
Gwathmey first became known for several elegant houses built at East Hampton, N.Y. With partner Robert Siegel, he continues to design houses, some palatial in scale. But Gwathmey and Siegel also have done important institutional buildings, the most recent being the controversial addition to Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum in New York.
Meier, in practice since 1963, is even more dogmatically modernist than Gwathmey. Meier's buildings are instantly recognizable: white, abstract ensembles teeming with dramatic visual juxtapositions -- solid against void, fluid space against cellular space.
Promenade and movement up to and through his buildings are always strongly expressed. Most important, Meier's work often exploits the harmonious contrast between the machined white building and the natural green landscape.
Meier is relentless in his formulaic use of minimalist detailing, free-standing stairs and ramps, disengaged columns, metal-panel cladding and ubiquitous surface-grid patterns based on the square.
All of this, he says, distills architecture down to its sensory essence: pure space and volume articulated by structure and surface, the set for a choreographed play of light and shadow. Photos of Meier's work lack people and plants and have minimal furnishings.
Among Meier's best-known projects is the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, used a few years ago in a Hollywood movie to portray an institution housing the criminally insane. Meier is now executing his greatest commission, the new Getty Center in Los Angeles. This project, costing hundreds of millions of dollars and requiring a dozen years to design and construct, consists of numerous buildings arranged in a topographically dynamic acropolis atop a ridge overlooking the city. It is Meier's only American project; all his other work is overseas.
Peter Eisenman, the last of the five to establish a significant architectural practice after many years of teaching and writing, is arguably the wittiest, most verbal of the group, perhaps the one who will prove to be the most inventive. He still is defining himself, still experimenting, the cerebral architect searching for next year's philosophical frontier.
He has designed the indescribable Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University, a long sliver of flying lattices and shifted, intersecting grids.
Before designing an office building in Japan, his non-English-speaking client kept repeating a single design requirement -- "cover ... cover ... cover" -- that Eisenman didn't understand. Eisenman finally realized that the client wanted a building striking enough to be featured on a magazine cover, which it was. The fractured building appears to have been designed and built during an earthquake.
He now is at work on a high-rise office building in Berlin for a client also looking for something unusual. Eisenman is providing it: a contorted tower modeled after a Moebius strip, the loop of twisted paper that people marvel at because its surface is continuous -- it only has one side.
Eisenman has been labeled a deconstructionist, an architect infatuated by literary theory and philosophy who persistently defies conventional norms.
He has moved even further afield, since today's computer graphics make it possible to compose, transform and represent almost any pattern imaginable. The level of abstract invention is almost limitless, the only real limits being the client's budget and program, the site, zoning and building codes, technology and the laws of nature.
Apart from these, there are, to Eisenman, no rules that can't be questioned or changed tomorrow. Thus each of his projects is an exploration of his compositional theories of the moment.
In three dimensions, Eisenman's work seems extraordinarily incomprehensible. Collages of colliding volumes, tilted planes, undulating surfaces and fragments of structure impart a sense of chaos, yet underlying the apparent chaos is a surprisingly systematic process of design that has both internal logic and discernible origins. The challenge is to decode it all.
Ultimately, the greatest value of the Maryland lecture series was the stimulation, not the information, it provided, especially for students. In the end, much of the work of the five architects is self-indulgent, overcooked, terribly expensive, disconnected from the everyday world of architecture and the people inhabiting it.
Yet seeing these architects together is undeniably provocative, a reminder that architecture is more art than science.
Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.