by Christopher Coe, AIA
CEO of COE Architecture International
I first met Charles Gwathmey when I was selected as the AIAS student representative on the 1983 National AIA Honor Awards Jury that he chaired. Of course I knew his work well, Five Architects was my primer in school. Three weeks later I moved to New York and started my architectural career at Gwathmey Siegel, even before finishing architecture school. It was the greatest education I could have received.
With Charles there was always great certainty about the approach to the work, that Modernism still had much to offer and that it could accept change and invention without losing its inherent power or meaning. In art, certainty this is hard to come by, but Charles was unrelenting in his beliefs about how he approached the work. There was certainly investigation and exploration, but always within that strict framework of belief. For a young architect beginning his career and looking for his “way” in the world, this was obviously appealing and inspiring.
The office was and still is simply unsurpassed in its devotion and execution to how buildings are conceptually and physically put together. There literally were internal “competitions” among different project teams to see who could put together the most complete, exacting, well-coordinated and beautiful set of construction drawings. It was a quest to uncover and solve every single minute detail of construction and to ensure the project was built exactly as envisioned. There was a tangible reverence for the craft of drawing and building. This is an extremely rare trait among architecture firms.
Photo caption: Charles Gwathmey (standing, third from left) chaired the 1983 AIA Honor Awards Jury on which Christopher Coe (seated, center) served, representing the American Institute of Architecture Students. Also on the jury were (seated left and right) David L. Browning and Graham Gund (standing left to right) George J. Hasslein, Bates Lowry, Milo Thompson, Robert J. Frasca, and Antoine Predock.
Since our first meeting Charles has been a great mentor and friend. Simply put, I would not be the architect I am today were it not for him. He pushed for my acceptance at his alma mater Yale University, sponsored my AIA Young Architect Award, and referred clients when I started my own firm. The exacting standards he set for himself, his office, and the work served as the benchmark for how I wanted to practice our art. In addition to his work, which will most certainly stand the test of time, he should also be remembered for the unyielding support he so willingly extended to many other younger architects like me.
I last saw Charles in November 2008 at Yale during the rededication of Paul Rudolph’s Art and Architecture Building that he so lovingly restored and to which he completed a new addition for the Art History Department. He looked thinner and tired; I thought from the monumental task he had just finished. I did not know then that he was ill. I told him I was happy for what he was able to do for his former teacher, Rudolph, and for Yale. He remarked something like “the press is going to kill us.” It was a moment of vulnerability I had never before seen from him. To me, he was always a unique paradox, tough-talking but with an astounding intellect, big in words, work, and life.
I let the comment pass but later that night I remembered a cutting quotation I had heard him deliver 25 years earlier in response to an architecture critic’s article about one of his house designs. To me, it summed up his supreme dedication to the art of architecture and the single-mindedness with which he pursued it. In his put-on tough-guy New York accent he shot back: “Misinterpretation is not the preoccupation of the original artist.”
Charles Gwathmey was an original, an artist, and he will be greatly missed."