Navigate to Arts & Letters section

Design Within Reach

As he unveils a new line of affordable Judaica, architect Richard Meier reflects on his Jewishness

Judith Matloff
November 08, 2010
Richard Meier's 1985 "Meier Lamp," reproductions of which are being sold by New York's Jewish Museum.(Courtesy Richard Meier & Partners)
Richard Meier's 1985 "Meier Lamp," reproductions of which are being sold by New York's Jewish Museum.(Courtesy Richard Meier & Partners)

Ask Richard Meier which of his works gives him the greatest satisfaction, and the celebrated architect doesn’t need a moment to think. It’s the seven-year-old Jubilee Church outside Rome. He loves the cascading light and soaring concrete wings. He’s tickled that he was the first Jew to build a church for the Vatican.

Yet there’s something that would give him even more joy.

“A synagogue,” he says. “I’ve seen a lot of synagogues get built, some by great architects, but I still think I could do it better. It would mean a lot to me, both as a Jewish American and an architect, to be able to build my own.”

Meier has designed practically everything else: museums, skyscrapers, and beach houses. He has put his sleek glass-and-white stamp all over the world, a minimalist look that has won him the profession’s highest awards and a movie-star clientele. Yet behind the celebrity lies a privately religious man who has never strayed far from his Newark Jewish roots, and two projects underway are providing Meier ample opportunity to reflect on this identity.

Tonight, Meier will unveil an exclusive line of ritual art to be sold through New York’s Jewish Museum. The launch of these menorahs and mezuzahs coincides with the construction of his first project in Israel, a residential tower in Tel Aviv.

Both projects carry deep meaning for Meier. People who have sat at his seder table describe a man who savors tradition. Yet this is a side the public rarely sees. Despite wanting to build his own shul, Meier rarely attends services and doesn’t belong to a congregation. Raised Reform, he went to synagogue only on High Holidays when growing up, and today he sees no need to worship outside the home. “Being a Jew means believing in God,” he says. “It means to think things outside of yourself are more important.”

I caught Meier in between trips to Tel Aviv, and he looked tired sitting in the living room of his Upper East Side apartment. The duplex is filled with decorative items of his own making; being a perfectionist, Meier likes everything to be just so, and he has fashioned things like chairs and dishware for home use. He has also made his own menorah.

“I made it because I needed one,” he says.

In fact he made two, in radically different styles. First there’s the one you would expect from a minimalist, a stark lamp of polished stainless steel. It looks just right in the kitchen, which, true to the Meier brand, is blindingly white.

Then there’s a grim-looking lamp in tin that commands a place of honor in the study amid his favorite architecture books. This “Meier Lamp” was originally produced for the Israel Museum in 1985, and a limited edition of $1,000 reproductions will be introduced at tonight’s event. The architectonic pewter candle-holders resemble heavy chess pieces, a big departure from Meier’s customary spare style. Each candlestick signifies an architectural style from moments of persecution over 4,000 years of Jewish history. They range from the expulsion of Egypt through the ages until the concentration camps of Europe.

“I was trying to express the collective memory of the Jewish people,” Meier says. “They serve as reminders of the pogroms suffered by Jews and their strength through the ages.”

To match the menorah, Meier designed three mezuzahs in silver that will retail for $125. I inspect the entrance to see if there’s one hanging there, but the doorpost is bare. “I can’t figure out how to attach them to the door frame,” Meier admits sheepishly. “It’s steel. If I bore a hole I need something behind it. I’d probably have to use crazy glue.”

He’s a world-famous architect and he can’t figure that out? Meier insists he’s serious.

He finds it easier to redefine the Tel Aviv skyline, where his 32-story glass structure is due to be completed in the autumn of 2013. While a fan of the Bauhaus buildings that surround the spot, Meier hopes that he will shake up Israeli architecture much as he did with his iconic Greenwich Village edifices a decade ago.

But what does it signify to leave a mark in Israel? Meier parses his words carefully, presumably because talking about politics is bad for business. He’d much rather talk about the nightlife—Meier is an inveterate restaurant-goer—which he believes makes Manhattan look sleepy.

“It’s complicated,” Meier says finally. “If you live there, you probably have a different view than if you just read about what’s going on. I spent time with some young architects, and you learn what they go through day by day. Going to work, they travel with submachine guns in the back of their cars.”

While the tower pleases him as an aesthetic exercise, because of the play of light and the sea, he admits that it doesn’t carry the significance of a public building like, say, a synagogue.

The desire to build a shul dates back to 1963, when Meier curated an exhibit on American synagogues for the Jewish Museum. He felt particularly inspired by the work of a fellow modernist, Louis Kahn, and the thought has lingered since.

What a Meier synagogue would actually look like, should it ever arise, would depend on the context, he says. Meier factors in the surrounding landscape when drawing up blueprints. It’s safe to guess that the structure would be white, with lots of glass. But that is getting ahead of ourselves, Meier says. “No one has asked me to build one.”

Judith Matloff teaches at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She is the author of Home Girl: Building a Dream House on a Lawless Block.

Judith Matloff teaches at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and is the author of Home Girl: Building a Dream House on a Lawless Block.

Become a Member of Tablet

Get access to exclusive conversations, our custom app, and special perks from our favorite Jewish artists, creators, and businesses. You’ll not only join our community of editors, writers, and friends—you’ll be helping us rebuild this broken world.