Looking In, Looking Out

(Above) Myers' New Jersey Performing Arts Center, in Newark, has been praised for its strong urban-planning elements. NJPAC photos: Jeff Goldberg / ESTO


By Virgina Fairweather

Barton Myers GAr’64 lives on a mountaintop, but—in contrast to the public image of architects from the imperious Frank Lloyd Wright to today’s media celebrities (not to mention Ayn Rand’s fictional Howard Roark, who would rather blow up his building than see his principles compromised)—there is little of the Olympian about him. No haughty gatekeepers are to be found at his home overlooking the Pacific. He greets a visitor wearing worn sweats, and prepares espresso in the kitchen. There is something Southern at work—perhaps a relic of Myers’ upbringing in Norfolk, Va.
    Hospitality and good manners overlay, even mask, Myers’ intellectual curiosity and obvious intelligence. He has the credentials, along with the accolades and honors, to force his way, but those who have worked with him speak of his collaborative approach, his willingness to listen to everyone on the project team, as well as about his extraordinary talent.
    Myers’ house, on a remote mountain site in California, was featured last year in an article in The New York Times. It is really three buildings—his studio, the living quarters and the guest house—that step down the steep slope, all similar oblong blocks of concrete, steel and glass. Two have water sitting on their flat roofs. The uppermost building is the studio, where Myers works three or four days a week, commuting with his wife Vicki, who is CFO of the firm, to Barton Myers Associates in Beverly Hills the other days. From the studio, one sees the successive reflecting rooftop pools and, in the distance below, the Pacific Ocean—framed on both sides by mountain ridges.
    This esthetic effect has a very practical purpose. The site is covered with highly flammable brush, and the steel and the water are there to deal with fires. The rooftop water reservoirs are equipped with pumping systems for firefighting. There is glass everywhere, the mountains and trees visible from every room at every level, but across the front of each building are massive rolldown steel doors, furled but ready to shut the houses down tight in minutes in case of fire. Exposed hydraulic rolldown door mechanisms stretch across the ceilings inside. The walls and floors are fireproof concrete, albeit with a soft finish. Myers says that “one’s design has to say something about the technology of the day,” and his house is an emphatic example. But in spite of the austere materials, the fireplaces, books and artwork convey warmth and livability.
    Myers’ other most recent high-profile design is as highly public as his house is distinctly private, but both structures illustrate some signature themes in his work, including an awareness of what he calls the “elegance of engineering and the potential applications of technology” (learned, he says, from his experience as a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and jet pilot) and an abiding interest in integrating a building with its larger context.
    Still, the contexts could hardly be more different. The New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) sits on the opposite coast from Myers’ house, in a tarnished urban industrial city—Newark, N.J. Here are the same exposed steel beams and acres of glass, but, rather than nature, they frame aging factories and bridges, small urban parks and the far-from-pastoral Passaic River. The arts center combines the technological excellence essential to theaters, an exploration of the uses of exposed steel, and, above all, Myers’ sensitivity to integrating the architecture with the environment.

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