This 79-year old architect, best known for refined, light-graced houses and cultural landmarks, like the Olympian Getty Center in Los Angeles, has just installed the Richard Meier Model Museum in Jersey City, with some 400 handmade models of projects he’s designed since opening Richard Meier & Partners in 1963. His firm is also building affordable housing andcharter schools in downtown Newark, drawing on Mr. Meier’s less-well-known early experiences in community-oriented residential projects.Richard Meier is returning to his roots with two new developments in New Jersey, where he grew up.
“It’s really an ambitious project to bring life and activity to this neglected site,” said Mr. Meier, who was born in Newark, pointing out the development’s prime location, across from City Hall.
Last week, the architect, elegant even as he moved a bit slowly with a cane, led a visitor through both projects, with the first stop the museum, a miniature Modernist city now open to the public at Mana Contemporary, which offers a variety of art services and exhibition spaces. The museum gathers much of his life’s work under one roof, and replaces a much smaller version that opened in 2007 in Long Island City, Queens, and that until recently was open only by appointment to students and tour groups.
The new 15,000-square-foot suite in Jersey City has given Mr. Meier room to show his own sculptures, architectural drawings and collages for the first time. He is setting up a research library and a studio space — where he plans to work one day a week — adjoining the office of his daughter, Ana Meier, who is opening an adjacent showroom for her furniture designs.
Mr. Meier had to remove a huge window and use a crane to hoist in the largest of the Getty Center models. Its complex of buildings and outdoor pavilions, set into a terraced topography carved from basswood, stands over five feet tall and stretches 21 by more than 37 feet. (The actual project took 13 years and was finished in 1997.) There are scaled representations of the High Museum of Art in Atlanta (completed in 1983), the Ara Pacis Museum in Rome (completed in 2006), and his first significant commission — the Smith House in Darien, Conn., designed in 1965. It established what became Mr. Meier’s signatures: pristine white facades, with expansive windows, that balance solid and void, light-filled interiors and dynamic plays of interlocking geometric forms.
His topsy-turvy sculptures on pedestals around the models’ periphery come as a surprise. “These are made from discarded pieces of the Getty models,” Mr. Meier said. “I was just having fun.”
Mr. Meier, whose grandparents had a leather factory in Newark, has talked about his pride in bringing his knowledge and expertise back to his birthplace, according to members of his staff. (He grew up in nearby Maplewood.) In 2008, the firm began working with the city to develop a master plan for a mixed-use development called Teachers Village. The firm mapped out a long-range design transforming a 14-block area of downtown, largely parking lots and some dilapidated buildings, into a neighborhood with charter schools, housing to be marketed primarily to teachers, retail space to promote street life where there was none, and parks.
Mr. Meier — who, in 1984, at 49, became the youngest solo architect to win the Pritzker Prize — spent much of his early career building residential communities. He converted the 13 connected structures of the former Bell Laboratories into Westbeth Artists’ Housing in the West Village in 1970.
“People had renovated brownstones but never a building the size of Westbeth,” Mr. Meier said.
Other large community complexes he designed from the ground up in the 1970s are the Twin Parks Northeast Housing, in the Bronx, and the Bronx Developmental Center, a residence for disabled children (and largely demolished in 2002, when the state cut off funding). Models of both projects are at the Jersey City museum.
“What we try to do in housing projects is give the most light and the most space in every apartment we can,” Mr. Meier said. “That’s what people want.”
He applied those principles to the design of the four buildings to be completed this year in the initial phase of Teachers Village. Three buildings, the first to open in March, will be residential, with apartments priced in line with teachers’ salaries and marketed through Teach for America. Every unit will have floor-to-ceiling windows and open floor plans.
The fourth, 230 Halsey Street, opened last August with two charter schools with luminous classrooms, a gym and a cafeteria.
The facades of the four buildings will alternate between sections of red brick and expanses of white — either aluminum paneling or stucco — punctuated with windows mixing clear and translucent glass in geometric patterns. Mr. Meier had not clad a building in brick for several decades.
“The city was very concerned about maintaining some of the character of the area,” said Rémy Bertin, the project architect in charge of 230 Halsey Street. “We understood that we were fitting into the fabric of the city, and Newark is the brick city. ”
Mr. Meier’s firm worked closely with Newark’s planning department, which was rezoning the city. City planners didn’t want a wall of towers lining narrow streets and limited the height of buildings along Halsey Street to 60 feet; buildings facing the street are designed to a residential scale of four stories, some rising to six in setbacks.
Phase 1 of the master plan includes four additional buildings on Halsey, to be designed by other firms. “I think it’s good to have different people involved,” Mr. Meier said. “It gives it a little more normal urban character.”
KSS Architects, based in Princeton, N.J., has already finished one with a charter school and a day care center.
Frank Popper, a city planner who teaches at Rutgers and Princeton Universities, recently saw a version of the proposed development.
“I’d give it a qualified thumbs-up,” said Mr. Popper, adding that he is concerned that Teachers Village could feel like an enclave without efforts to knit it into existing neighborhoods. “It’s going to be middle-class teachers in an area that was previously either industrial or deserted or dodgy, or all three.”
“The urban fabric of Newark is pretty frayed,” he continued. “You can’t ask it to become unfrayed all that quickly.”