In 2016, when news broke that billionaire developer Sheldon Solow and noted American architect Richard Meier would be teaming up for a new condo building on the far east side of Manhattan, it caused a stir in the intertwined worlds of real estate and architecture.
Updates from the site—685 First Avenue—have continued apace: On this very website, the project has been covered seven times; at the beginning this month, we included 685 First Avenue on our twice-yearly list of projects that will launch sales in a given season.
But much can change in two years. A New York Times investigation published earlier this month revealed that Richard Meier stands accused of sexual harassment by five women over a period spanning 30 years. Following the story’s publication, Meier announced that he would take a six-month leave of absence from his eponymous firm, where the 83-year-old has been serving as founder and managing partner.
Within the architecture community, the reaction to this news was swift. Meier’s alma mater, Cornell University’s College of Architecture, Art, and Planning, declined Meier’s endowment for the position of the “Richard Meier Chair of the Department of Architecture,” which had been announced in January.
Here in New York, the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects rescinded a previously announced award for Meier’s firm’s work on the Leblon Offices in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; its executive director, Benjamin Prosky, said in a letter that “we cannot in good conscience confer these awards under these circumstances.”
But what of real estate—the practical engine that both feeds and benefits from big-name architects? In the midst of the #MeToo movement, developers, collaborators, city agencies, and brokerages are due for a reckoning if and when architects become the subject of sexual harassment allegations. In an industry that relies on marketing to drive sales, one naturally wonders how such allegations could affect New York’s fickle sales market. Not to mention, will buyers actually want to live in a building stamped with the name of a public figure with a questionable reputation?
“At this moment in history, [with] the #MeToo phenomenon, there’s no gray,” says Jonathan Miller, CEO of the real estate appraisal firm Miller Samuel. “Any marketing associated with someone that becomes tainted like this will change overnight, and it will disappear.”
That certainly appears to be the case for the First Avenue project. Listings snuck onto StreetEasy on Monday night without the fanfare that typically accompanies the launch of a new building in Manhattan, especially one designed by the firm of a Pritzker Prize–winning architect.
Meier’s name has been scrubbed from the website for the project, which touts the building’s “unprecedented interplay of black and light” and its “layered black glass form” without mentioning the architect responsible. Likewise, there is no mention of Meier in the project’s sales gallery, which is often the prime bricks-and-mortar marketing opportunity for developers selling a new building.
A spokesperson for 685 First Avenue confirmed that sales have launched, but offered no comment regarding the allegations against Meier or how they might affect the project, or its promotion, going forward.
In fact, no one involved at either 685 First Avenue or One Waterline Square, another project designed by Meier which recently launched sales, would comment. Calls and emails from Curbed NY—even to people not directly involved with those two projects—weren’t returned. (One contact replied, “No developer is going to touch this.”)
It’s impossible to divorce Meier from the starchitecture phenomenon and its effect on New York real estate: His glassy, modernist boxes at 173-176 Perry Street, completed in 2002, were among the first buildings that proved the value of a starchitect’s imprimatur. (And as the AIA Guide to New York City notes, the buildings were “credited, and sometimes blamed, for initiating the glass condominium revolution that spread up and down the Hudson” prior to the 2008 recession.)
“Those were actually an important moment in the city’s architecture, and we can’t get away from that,” says Curbed critic Alexandra Lange. “I think that those towers made him a commercial name in a way that he hadn’t been before.”
And of course, from Shigeru Ban in Tribeca to Zaha Hadid in West Chelsea, it’s now commonplace to employ the buzz and reputation of big-name architects to market apartments. “I view it as a passport to a new threshold or level of pricing,” Miller says of the trend.
The rewards of marketing such a potentially big-ticket building around a single person’s name may now also come with risks, as developers—and their marketing teams—are now discovering.
A developer active in New York’s residential real estate scene (who has not worked directly with Meier) tells Curbed NY that “the focus on high-end condos is very design-driven these days, and one of the reasons you hire the starchitect is because it gets you X dollars per square foot. If all of a sudden that starchitect name is associated with Harvey Weinstein, you could really be fucked. You don’t want to support that, and if that guy’s the architect of your building, that puts you in a bit of a moral quandary.”
Which is not to say that power players are changing their M.O. just yet. “If this is not a one-off, and this becomes more common, I think all it does is change the way these projects are marketed,” says Miller. “I don’t think it’s going to have developers shy away from bold, new design and innovation; I think it affects how it’s presented to the market. One sale doesn’t make a market, and one controversial starchitect doesn’t take down the genre.”
Buildings are tangible, conceivably permanent additions to a cityscape; you can’t easily erase them from the skyline. Over time, it’s possible to forget that the person who designed them was not, in fact, all that good—one example being Stanford White, of the prolific 19th-century firm McKim, Mead & White.
White allegedly drugged and raped young women before his murder in 1906, and yet many of the structures he designed in New York City, including the Washington Square Park Arch and the Judson Memorial Church, are lauded as architectural treasures.
Ironically, the fallacious notion of a starchitect—a genius practitioner single-handedly responsible for visionary design!—may in the end torpedo the ability to market a building with an architect’s name. After all, the principal of a firm is hardly the only person working to get the structure off the ground; 685 First Avenue, for example, was a collaboration between Richard Meier and Dukho Yeon, an associate partner at RMPA. Seven other firms also worked on the building, handling things like the execution of the curtain wall, the structural engineering, and the lighting design. (Not to mention construction workers, crane operators, inspectors, and others.)
Getting to a place where both firms and marketers acknowledge the collaborative effort, rather than placing so much importance on the one big name, is one path forward.
“I want the #MeToo moment to lead to something better for the future,” says Lange. “We can’t just replace the older men with younger men; we also can’t just replace the younger men with younger women because that could potentially lead to the same kind of abuses. That’s not how architecture is made. Frankly, they [should be] selling these buildings because they have better amenities or better floor plans or something that’s actually a physical benefit, rather than just a name on the outside.”
Anyone with information about alleged misconduct in the architecture, design, and development industries can contact Curbed’s editor-in-chief, Kelsey Keith, at firstname.lastname@example.org. We are accustomed to discussing sensitive information and stories over the phone, so feel free to send an email asking for a phone call. You can also send tips using the app Signal, which encrypts text messages and voice calls. Tip Curbed via Signal here: 267-714-4132.