The geometric perfection of the Great Court at the British Museum by Foster + Partners (Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0)
Years ago, Architectural Record featured one of Richard Meier’s spectacular residential commissions(1). It was an archetypal Meier project: light-filled, crisply geometric, and starkly white in contrast to nature. I’d already been a fan of Meier’s work for some time, but what struck me about the project was a simple point made in the magazine about how fastidious Meier and his partners were when it came to both designing and overseeing the execution of the project. They were absolutely unforgiving of even the tiniest of flaws. They attempted to eradicate every possible geometric impurity. What they sought was nothing short of perfection.
The ancient Greeks regarded perfection as a prerequisite for beauty. Plato defined perfection as “apt, suitable, and without deviations.” Pythagoras asserted that perfection was a matter of geometry, proportion, and the harmonious arrangement of parts. Aesthetic perfection would become synonymous with flawlessness and completeness. These classical definitions of perfection remain applicable today.
For many architects, perfection is a Holy Grail. The success of Richard Meier’s work is largely contingent upon how precisely he arranges his trademark vocabulary of gridded panels, oblique ramps, pipe railings, expansive windows, and austere planes of plaster or drywall. Every component is exhaustively considered, fitted exactly and inflexibly in the only position it can occupy to be absolutely perfect. The beauty of a Meier building lies in its precision, sophistication, elegance, and the way light & shadow play on the white surfaces.
Other maestros of High Modernism, such as Sir Norman Foster and I.M. Pei, equally obsess over the exactness of every detail and its relationship to the complex wholes of which it is a part. Like classical architecture before it, the work of these masters aspires to a standard of perfection verging on the super-human or divine. The obsessive precision of the Great Court at the British Museum by Foster and the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art by Pei betray the aesthetic hauteur and confident genius of their authors. Indeed, the pursuit of perfection demands a level of self-assurance bordering on arrogance.
The amazing degree to which some of the most talented architects are able to achieve the illusion of perfection awes me. After all, these architects confront the same confounding practicalities of design and construction that perplex the rest of us. Somehow though, they transcend these profane realities to create seemingly immaculate works of architecture. Undoubtedly, their ability to create “perfect” buildings is not only a product of raw talent but also one of immense effort, capital, teamwork, supportive clients/owners, and plain good fortune.
Attaining perfection in architecture is tantamount to a miracle. I know how difficult it is to design something as complex as a building. Every project is a tremendously demanding venture. Each one is a leap of faith. Many are born of optimism and ambition, but end up being dragged down by exigency and disenchantment. That’s why it’s nothing short of AWESOME when architects strive for perfection and actually come close.
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