Five decades ago, Carole Smith called Richard Meier and told him about a site in Darien, Connecticut that she had bought with her husband. This was a rocky piece of land with dense evergreens and coastal outcrops. A dramatic slope at the back of the plot gave way to the Long Island Sound and a small, sandy cove. Carole wanted to place her weekend home on this particular site and she wanted Richard Meier to do it. At that time, he was just 31.
The Smith House was built between 1965-1967 by Richard Meier & Partners Architects. Richard Meier recalls of the project that would later propel his career as an architect: “I was working out of one room of a two-room apartment shortly after leaving the office of Marcel Breuer. One day I had a call from Carole Smith asking if I would be interested in designing a weekend house for her...She was looking for a young architect who would give full attention to her house.”
In never-before-seen photos and an exclusive interview with the architect himself, we trace the building's history from the first phases of construction to now.
When Meier arrived on-site, he realized that the original plan for a sprawling ranch house would be the most expensive type to build: the land’s foundation was almost entirely rock, and excavation costs would put the project’s budget over the top. Instead, Meier opted to extend vertically instead of horizontally, so that it would be both more cost-effective and more spatially interesting, given the rocky, coastal landscape. This was the beginning of the design process.
Richard Meier & Partners shared with ArchDaily some photos of the construction that were never published before. What is revealed in these photos (and may come as a surprise) is that the house was built on a wooden frame, and not concrete, as was orginally thought.
Meier wanted to create a programmatic separation between public and private areas. This is also how the house maintains some element of enigmatic mystery and surprise. Whereas most houses put on a welcoming show on the front and have their private rooms enclosed in the rear, Smith House takes an opposite route. The street-facing side of the house, where visitors enter, appears as an unassuming opaque white box punctured with dark glass openings. This is the private side of the house, encompassing a series of "closed, cellular spaces."
The journey through the house is an unconventional one, shifting from the private rooms to an expansive public space at the rear. To enhance the house’s spaciousness and height, Meier framed the open façade at the back such that a visitor’s vision is bounded only by the sky above and the water right at the bottom
"There is a formal layering, giving a sense of progression, as one moves across the site from the entrance road down to the shore, and the 'line of progression' determines the major site axis," Meier has written. "Perpendicular to this axis, the intersecting planes in the house respond to the rhythms of the slope, trees, rock outcroppings, and the shoreline."
The rear façade uses enormous glass pieces, some measuring up to three-storeys high. Enclosed within the glass shell, the ground and upper levels appear as slabs fastened by white mullions. The studio added that the glazed wall, bordered by the chimney on end and the steel structural columns on the other, "creates a subtle tension that draws the occupant across the living space to the outside."
The balustrades of the lower and upper levels are set at a distance from the glass, amplifying that tension.
Chuck Smith recounted growing up in a Richard Meier-designed house.
"I can't believe it's been 50 years since I first experienced the Smith House. I was only five years old then, but the childlike wonder I felt then comes back to me every time I walk up the ramp, inside the door, and feel Richard Meier's design."
At a time when design in America was more conservative, the suburban dwelling stood out for being so open and inviting. A September 1968 issue of House Beautiful described the house as a “lighthouse on the shore.”
50 years later, Richard Meier’s Smith House has come to define the architectural language and design philosophy of his firm. Meier changed Smith’s initial idea of a splayed-out ranch house to the distinct vertical volume that it is now: a three-sided glass shell with an opaque white front that inserts itself into the natural landscape.
The house is has a compact shape with clearly defined prisms and clear glazing that gathers the reflections of the interior and natural landscape, colluding them into inseparable images. Meier performed additions and subtractions on the main cubic volume, and the resultant white walls, geometric design, and layered use of glass have become Meier's trademark style.
In comments to the press, Meier described the house and his way of looking at the space within:
“In the Smith House, as in every house that we design there is a search for clarity and for a basic geometric form. This geometry helps to create certain areas of compression, energizing tensions between openness and closure, between solid and void, between opacity and transparency. The intention in every building is rendered graphic by this geometric ordering of pace developed in a way that is always related to scale, to human scale and to the struggle to make the wholeness of the architecture clear, lucid, lyrical, and real."
In the five decades that have passed since Smith House was built, both the internal and external life of the house has remained largely unaltered. The house has remained with the Smith family and is now owned by Carole Smith's son, Chuck Smith. In the newer photographs taken by Mike Schwartz, white paint on the brick chimney has started to chip away, revealing spots of red below that give the home some age and character.
Q: Richard, how does the house make you feel?
A: There is a precision to the construction and design of the house that is important, and means a great deal to me. I remember having a long conversation with the contractor when he was laying down the house according to our drawings, and he kept saying that he was missing one eighth of an inch, and at the end of the process he was never able to find that one eighth of an inch.
Q: How has the house maintained its status in the architectural community?
A: Because of the unique qualities of the site and the design, people became very anxious to see it. In the 60’s design in America was more conventional and this house was much more modern, open, transparent and inviting.
My relationship with the clients at the time, and the fact that they have welcomed visitors and maintained the house in such an extraordinary way make the Smith House very special.
Both the building and the architect have been distinguished with honors in the 50 years since the project was built. Smith House was awarded AIA’s Twenty-five year award, conferred to projects that have stood the test of time and continue to set standards of excellence for their design and significance. Richard Meier won the Pritzker Prize; at 49, he was the youngest architect to receive his profession’s highest accolade.
Architect in Charge
Meier is also founder of Richard Meier & Partners. Among its best known works are: this very house, the Smith House in Darien, Connecticut; the Getty Center in Los Angeles, California; the United States Courthouse in Islip, New York; the Atheneum in New Harmony, Indiana, and the Douglass House in Harbor Springs. The later was added to the Natonal Register of Historic Places.