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Charles Gwathmey: ‘Vision is the art of seeing things invisible’

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Sep 11, 2009
Category: Art and Photography

A funeral and a memorial service just hours apart — that’s an unusual day. But most of his friends were out of town when Dominick Dunne died at 83, so his family thoughtfully postponed his funeral. Charles Gwathmey, who died in early August at 71, had a private funeral; his memorial service also waited on his friends’ and colleagues’ end-of-summer return to the city.
A two-and-a-half hour mass for Dominick, followed just a few hours later by a two-hour service for Charles at the auditorium of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A eulogy and six speakers for Dominick, another ten for Charles. Plus music. Plus the business of friendship, the meeting and greeting. If you attended both and had tears to shed, you were wrung out by the time “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” started to play and, with it, images and film clips of an impossibly vibrant Charles Gwathmey.
Dominick’s service was at a church, open to the public and widely reported; Charles’s was private, by invitation only. No one has yet written about it, so I thought I should. Not for the prominent and eloquent speakers — his stepson Eric Steel, his partner Robert Siegel, his clients Steven Spielberg, Ron Meyer and Mitchell Rales, his friends Kathryn Steinberg, Ralph Lauren and Brian Williams, and architects Peter Eisenman and Robert A.M. Stern — but for the thread that ran through their remarks. For in their own ways, they explored an idea as much as they mourned a man.  
Eric Steel — one of the three children Bette-Ann brought to her marriage to Charles — found the distillation of that idea in a quotation from Jonathan Swift: “Vision is the art of seeing things invisible.”
And Charles did.

At a tender age, he saw that the Modernism of Corbusier was not a style of architecture but was, for him, a truth about the way that people should live — and at 25, he built a house and studio for his parents that made his name. For the next 45 years, he beat the drums for that vision, even — and especially — to clients who did not share it.
Steven Spielberg, an early and faithful client, shared a filmmaker’s private game: matching people he meets to film characters. In 1982, when he first encountered Charles, he cast him as the coach of the New York Giants. Well, Charles sure had the look of a tough talker who could drive a football team to victory. All his life, he was as buffed as a professional athlete. At Yale, he could climb a rope to the rafters without using his legs; a workout might include a thousand sit-ups. And in a swearing competition, he could out-curse Chris Rock.
Spielberg soon understood that Charles was a much gentler soul, but so committed to his idea of what a home should be that he sold hard and closed harder. A barn in East Hampton? Charles was too offended to consider it; a week later, he had a plan for a Modernist barn with no connection to Pennsylvania Dutch structures. So Spielberg signed on to yet another “geometic adventure” — though he knew he wouldn’t have much input. Charles fought any alteration of his vision, not because he was an autocrat but because he’d thought the project out and knew he was right. “He was like a director who had final cut even though the studio was putting up all the money,” Spielberg recalled. “The more I kept my mouth shut, the happier he was.”
Throughout the evening, large ideas came through best in an accretion of tiny details. Charles drove a dark Mercedes wagon, stripped of chrome. He carried no phone and disliked wallets — they would spoil the silhouette of his clothes. He competed with Ralph Lauren in a never-ending Best Abs competition. At dinner, he ordered for everyone. In his final illness, he dictated must-see lists for Paris-bound travelers.
The tell in Charles Gwathmey’s character was that he loved building homes much more than he liked big bread-and-butter projects like skyscrapers. He came from a terrific home — his parents were artists who adored him and listened to him and encouraged him — and in his marriage to Bette-Ann, he made its successor, a circle inside the grid of his architecture. He had no hobbies. His life was architecture and his family. When there was trouble in that family — and there was terrible trouble: Bette-Ann lost two teenage children in less than two years — it was Charles who carried his wife and stepson through it.
Charles cared equally about houses and the people who would live in them, so he knew how light came through a window, and more — how it should come through a window through every change in the calendar so people would feel it fresh. And he knew that the cross-lines in the heads of the Phillips screws in a deck should all be evenly lined up, even if you couldn’t see them, and how the shelves in the library should make books look important. “He brought out my inner anal,” a client said. I’d put it another way: He set a high standard and challenged you to live up to your house.
Speaker after speaker noted his combination of bravado and need — how he’d bully you into agreement, then ask if you loved him. The scowl, then the grin. Is there a combination more winning?
“Art alone endures, “ Emerson wrote. “The bust outlasts the throne.” That is why people will sing the songs of Bruce Springsteen long after Dick Cheney is forgotten. It’s why the French name their streets after poets. It’s one of the reasons I so loved Charles, and was pushed and poked and prodded by his example, and why so many others felt as I did — in a time when so many are whores for commerce, he waved the flag of art. The invisible was plain as day to him; he struggled all his life to make us see and feel what he did. Ron Meyer had it exactly right when he summed up his remarks by quoting Paris Hilton: “This really sucks.”