There is nothing superfluous in Richard Meier’s lean preliminary studies for the Atheneum, a visitors” center and museum for the town of New Harmony, a utopian community founded in the early nineteenth century. For Meier, drawings are a means to an end. He produces them not for aesthetic purposes—he finds little value in drawing and coloring beautiful facades—but as part of his process of exploring the building’s fundamental design, in plan, section, and elevation. Meier’s spare graphite line on tracing paper seems fitting to the composition of reductive elements in his all-white building. Yet his economy of line utterly belies the spatial complexity and the drama of light and shadow experienced by the building’s visitors.
The historical inspiration underlying much of Meier’s work is the early architecture of Le Corbusier, such as the Villa Savoye, an icon of the modern movement. Meier’s homage lies in part in his formal vocabulary, with its pilotis, ramps, and pure white forms, but also in his emphasis on the architectural promenade, that is, the journey through the building. Meier has said of the Atheneum that “circulation is the main spatial protagonist of this building and the ramp is its most vital element.” This is evident in both of these preliminary studies, which were first exhibited at The Museum of Modern Art in an exhibition devoted to the Atheneum in 1985.
In the plan, the building’s principal cross axes can be seen extending beyond it into the landscape, as if connecting metaphorically with the grid of the town to welcome visitors. By rotating one axis slightly off center, Meier creates a dynamic tension that is reinforced by the shifting directions of the path threading through a variety of spaces connected by ramps and stairs. The complexity of these spaces is echoed in the irregular outline of the facade, notably the curved and fluid wall oriented toward the nearby river. The elevation brings the promenade to life by charting its trajectory through the horizontal levels of the building: ramp, stairs, bridges, and balconies activate the overall composition in a careful study of rectangles and grids, planarity and transparency. The drawing conveys a sense of anticipation and excitement, suggesting how this spatially complex building invites exploration and discovery, for the exhibits in the galleries, for the rooftop balcony from which to view the historic town, and for its own intricate sake, as a fitting symbol of the town founders’ pioneering spirit.
Publication excerpt from an essay by Peter Reed, in Matilda McQuaid, ed., Envisioning Architecture: Drawings from The Museum of Modern Art, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2002, p. 187.