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Fallen Giants: Richard Meier at Cornell University & the Getty Center (and other besmirched luminaries)

“He’s a giant. We are all basking in the glow of his legacy.”

So said Kent Kleinman, Cornell University’s Dean of the College of Architecture, Art and Planning, as quoted in a Cornell Chronicle article about architect Richard Meier‘s visit to his (and my) alma mater. “For him to come back and share his life as an architect with the next generation of architects is really an incredible privilege,” Kleinman gushed.

Kent Kleinman, Dean of Cornell’s College of Architecture, Art and Planning, in Rem Koolhaas’s Milstein Hall for architecture studies
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

That was in October 2012, when Meier sat in on a studio class co-taught by Assistant Professor Caroline O’Donnell, the first Richard Meier Professor of Architecture. (She is now listed as the Edgar A. Tafel Associate Professor and director of the M.Arch. program at Cornell.)

Richard Meier at Cornell studio class in 2012
Photo by Robert Barker/University Photography

Fast forward to last Tuesday, when Kleinman issued this statement:

I am deeply disturbed to learn of the allegations of sexual misconduct by Richard Meier (B.Arch. ’56), which were reported in an article in today’s New York Times [my link, not his]. As one of our most well-known alumni, Richard Meier has been associated with Cornell University and the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning through his gifts that support students and faculty. Although he has apologized, the reported behavior is unacceptable.

Therefore, we will decline his new gift to name the chair of the Department of Architecture, and we are cancelling the event that had been planned for next week to celebrate the gift. We will swiftly explore what additional actions are appropriate with regard to endowments for professorships and scholarships previously donated to Cornell.

Andrea Simitch, a Cornell Architecture graduate, was to have been the first Richard Meier Chair, according to the celebratory announcement in January.

Andrea Simitch

Cornell has not yet announced what, if anything, it will do about the Richard Meier Assistant Professorship of Architecture, which was established in 2010. But one part of Meier’s Cornell legacy cannot be erased:

Cornell University’s 2008 Weill Hall for life sciences, designed by Richard Meier
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Like Cornell, the J. Paul Getty Trust has decided to rescind a Meier honor that it was on the brink of bestowing: As reported by Sarah Cascone of artnet (and confirmed to me by a Getty spokesperson), the Getty has canceled a dinner in his honor, which was to have been held next week in New York in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Getty Center (the opening of which I reviewed for Art in America magazine).

Both morally and pragmatically, it cannot be otherwise. But Meier’s 1984 Pritzker Prize will stand, and the Getty cannot (nor should it) repudiate or discredit the architect’s monumental contribution to the history and success of its campus in Los Angeles:

The Getty Center, designed by Richard Meier
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The Meier quagmire may hold lessons for how cultural and educational enterprises of all kinds should deal with discoveries that acclaimed, sometimes beloved figures may be deeply, disgracefully flawed. The achievements of people like James Levine or Kevin Spacey (the two whose fall from grace hit me the hardest) remain as intact as Meier’s buildings, even though their personal reputations are in tatters.

Chuck Close‘s paintings should not be consigned to storage, any more than Richard Meier’s buildings should be razed or James Levine’s recordings trashed. They remain major achievements.

That’s not to say we will ever be able to entirely separate the art from what we now know (assuming allegations are true) of the artist. But although we may not be able to walk through the buildings, hear the music, look at the paintings or watch the performances without recalling the allegedly ignominious behavior of the creators, we cannot (nor should we) deprive ourselves of what we valued before our fall from innocence—the artistry and what it has meant to us.

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