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Looking In, Looking Out, continued

 

    Myers’ journey toward architecture began in Norfolk, where his roots go back to the 18th century. In 1790, Moses Myers, one of the first Jewish settlers in Virginia, was successful enough to build a large brick house. The Moses Myers house is now a museum, a graceful survivor of the general Norfolk urban-renewal demolition spree—and a possible inspiration for the future architect’s choice of profession. Another model was Myers’ grandfather, a building developer and planner who created several of Norfolk’s major gardens.

Myers' Wolf Residence in Toronto, Ontario was recently cited as the Canadian design that "most anticipated the 21st century."
Photo: Futagawa

 

    But as a young man, Myers recalls thinking that the people he knew who were planning to become architects were “a little weird” and instead entered the Naval Academy, where he received his undergraduate degree, training as a pilot. The immersion in technology was a good thing, he thinks now. Systems engineering, critical-path planning and military organization can be very useful for an architect, he says.
    While serving in the Air Force, Myers was stationed for a time at the University of Cambridge in England. It was there that he decided to become an architect, fascinated by the combination of old and new structures at the university town and at Oxford. Between flight missions, Myers took courses and applied to graduate architecture programs back home. Among the few available at the time, Penn’s reputation was at a peak. So at age 26, he entered the Graduate School of Fine Arts.
    He enthuses about the “giants” then in residence, notably then-Dean G. Holmes Perkins Hon’72, architectural icon Louis I. Kahn Ar’24 Hon’71 and Robert Venturi Hon’80. He also singles out Ian McHarg, emeritus professor of landscape architecture and regional planning, as a “great modern thinker on a par with Rachel Carson in terms of changing environmental thinking in this country.”

The idea of people looking in and out of a building—interacting through the walls—is a theme throughout Myers' buildings.

    In the early 1960s, Myers says, Philadelphia was at a crossroads, linking architecture and urban renewal, and the official response, led by city planner Edmund Bacon Hon’84, was infinitely more humane and thoughtful than what he had seen in Norfolk. His Penn mentors were trying to “keep the old and question what the new architecture would look like,” and instilled in Myers the importance of the architect’s responsibility to “the public realm.” Philadelphia itself was “rich in ideas,” Myers recalls, a remarkable place that sparked his interest in cities and the role of architects as one that is “tempered by the circumstance and context in which one builds.”
    At Penn, his design-studio classes focused on urban-renewal projects for the city of Philadelphia—“tough urban work,” Myers says. The idea of integrating the old architecture with the new echoed what he had seen at Cambridge and Oxford, but here the social issues were compelling. Architectural schools reflect the feelings in their cities, and Philadelphia was then a city of hope, says Myers. Afterward came the riots and “dark years,” he adds.
    Part of the decline, in Myers’ mind, was the University’s neglect, even rejection, of Louis Kahn—a “remarkable, inspirational” man who was primus inter pares of Myers mentors. It still pains him that, when the fine-arts school’s new building (now Meyerson Hall) was constructed in 1967, Kahn was not chosen to design it.
    Kahn’s influence on Myers continued after his graduation in 1964. He worked for him for several years, on such stellar projects as the Salk Research Center in Southern California and the capitol building in Dakar, Bangladesh. In 1968, seeing Philadelphia’s fortunes fade, Myers decided to start his own practice in Toronto, with A.J. Diamond.

The Citadel in Edmonton, Alberta established Myers as a leading designer for the performing arts. Photo: John Fulker.

 

    The firm’s impact on Canadian architecture was extraordinary. A Canadian newspaper referred to Myers as the “unofficial godfather” of much of Canadian architectural design. His work there covers the range of urban planning and design, large and small buildings, public and private structures. He designed his own residence, using exposed steel and other industrial components, and his Wolf house, built in 1974, was recently cited as the Canadian design that “most anticipated the 21st century.” Myers also designed museums, art galleries, and hosts of university and other public buildings in Canada. His urban work focused on “infill buildings”—housing and other structures that were an attempt to “knit the urban fabric together, to enhance the city.”
    By 1980, he had more assignments in California than in Canada and when UCLA offered him a professorship, he moved back to the United States. However, it was one of his Canadian projects—the Citadel, constructed in 1976, for which Myers won a design competition—that has led to his current pre-eminence in the highly specialized field of designing for the performing arts.
    Gary Hack, current dean of the Graduate School of Fine Arts, says that much of Myers’ theater work derives from this “wonderful” building in Edmonton, Alberta. Myers “continues to experiment with moveable/changeable spaces for theaters driven by acoustics and the technical needs of different kinds of performances” in his theater work, Hack says. In a larger sense, his designs show how architecture works as a setting for the “drama of human life.” Hack cites a “magnificent” housing union Myers designed for the University of Alberta back in the 1960s. The structure has a quarter-mile glass atrium, with classrooms on the upper level, that shows “people acting out their lives” as they go to class, chat in the halls, and move from one level to another. The idea of people looking in and out of a building—interacting through the walls—is a theme throughout Myers’ buildings.
    Connecticut-based theater consultant Richard Pilbro calls him “one of the finest theater architects in the U.S. today.” With his design for the Citadel, which has a 700-seat main auditorium, a 300-seat theater and a 250-seat lecture hall, Myers brought back the late-19th century idea of the importance of intimacy in theaters, adding “great individuality and detail,” he says. In the mid-1980s Pilbro worked with Myers on the Portland Center for the Performing Arts, and then in the early-1990s on the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, and the two got along “like a house on fire,” he says.
    The Portland theater, Pilbro says, has an “enormous wealth of detail, a lush mix of timber and wrought iron that echoes the city’s bridges and architecture.” That theater seats 900 and is still “intimate yet invigorating,” says Pilbro, who works with architects on the functional planning and technical-equipment side of theater work. He calls Myers’ Cerritos project “revolutionary.” For this site, south of Los Angeles, he designed a theater with an auditorium that can be used for five different types of performance and audience sizes by “moving large chunks of architecture about,” says Pilbro. Not only can Cerritos be acoustically modified for performances from rock concerts to dramas, but the auditorium can be configured to seat as many as 1,950 people or as few as 950.
    Myers himself says that Cerritos has been “tremendously successful,” and he is surprised there haven’t been more performing arts centers like it. Architecture for the performing arts can be the most satisfying kind of work, he says. “You are bringing people together—artists and audiences,” and you get “an immediate thank-you from both.”
    (Myers got a very public thank-you when the late Frank Sinatra opened the Cerritos Center. Sinatra said the auditorium was the “most beautiful he’d ever been in,” and even called for the architect to stand and be recognized. “Sinatra was probably put up to it,” Myers says, in a self-effacing manner, but he seems pleased to tell the tale, nonetheless.)
    “In all architecture, one needs to think about the place, the context and the program—the needs,” Myers says. For theater work, the needs are complex and many other experts—acousticians, lighting specialists, the artists themselves—are part of the process. “You have to listen, then translate all those needs into a building that meets expectations.” He likens the architect’s position to that of a movie director. “You have to have great people working for and with you, but you have to both listen and filter out what they want.” Myers’ ideas about responsibility to the city, his concern about the social implications of architecture, play a role here, too. In designing performing-arts centers, he says, the architect helps “unite a diverse population in a common experience.”

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