In the center of the new Richard Meier Model Museum in Jersey City, New Jersey, is a pair of models for the architect’s 1997 Getty Center campus. The models could be buildings in themselves. Made of Malaysian birch and basswood, the models stretch 18 feet and 37 feet respectively; the smaller of the two had to be lifted into the space by crane through a window. Ducking underneath the five-foot-high models, it’s possible to glimpse a warren of immaculately constructed tiny spaces.
Such an intimate view of an architectural masterpiece wouldn’t be possible without the museum, which is hosted in a warehouse complex owned by Mana Contemporary, an organization that provides art handling and collection services as well as hosts studio spaces. Meier, FAIA, decided to move his model collection from a cramped 3,500-square-foot space in Long Island City to its new 15,000-square-foot home at the suggestion of Gary Lichtenstein, a printmaker who prints Meier’s collages and runs a studio next door to the museum.
Meier’s studio designed the elegant space over the past six months, covering it in his signature white and adding a system of shelves and pedestals that display hundreds of models from throughout the architect’s long career, depicting projects both built and unbuilt. A model of the High Museum stands near an intricate proposal for the National Library of France, a reminder of just how much labor goes into turning many designs into just a handful of finished structures.
More than any other building, the Meier Model Museum is a temple to the Getty Center. Alongside the two largest models are dozens of other pieces that were created along the way to designing the complex, from fragments of hallways to a beautiful topographical study made of plaster. Meier’s complex becomes a sculpture, its curves emphasized when the models are hung vertically on the wall.
The museum also provides a view into Meier’s more personal work. In the front of the gallery are a series of collage-like sculptures made from casts of fragments of Getty Center models—a wall here, a staircase there, colliding together to create abstract forms. Meier’s small collages are also on view in the museum library, which is stocked with back-issues of Architectural Forum and Domus. The collages evolve from earlier textural compositions to more recent juxtapositions of magazine clippings edged by white space.
Another highlight is a small model of the 1965 Smith House, one of the first buildings that made Meier’s name. The model is obviously handmade: Its walls slightly curved by time, it nevertheless showcases the building’s crisp, geometric proportions in contrast to the sloped Connecticut site.
In the intimate environment of the museum, it’s possible to see the full arc of Meier’s practice beyond the monotone modernism of his buildings into the more restless mind behind the work. The failed experiments—the pieces that never made it into buildings—the sculptures and collages all show the architect as an artist.
In fact, Meier keeps an active studio off one side of the museum, a room lit by tall windows occupied by an empty white desk ready to be occupied.
The Richard Meier Model Museum is open to researchers, architecture classes, and Meier fans for guided tours on Fridays by appointment, which can be made by emailing the studio at firstname.lastname@example.org.