The Atheneum – Richard Meier

At the edge of a historic small town in Southwestern Indiana sits a pure white building in stark contrast, yet welcoming visitors to New Harmony. The Atheneum by Richard Meier is a building of movement, program, framed views, and pure space. Movement from the Wabash River to New Harmony is primary, with its interaction with program driving the formal shape of the building.

A path from the river leads you up a set of stairs to the entry which sits under an angled cantilever. Your view of the village is blocked, but the texture of the cladding and forms keeps the building from being oppressive.

Once inside, the program unfolds in overlapping spaces connected by a long ramp. The view through the structure to the surrounding environment grounds a person within the movement space. As you ascend the ramp, the building starts to unfold.

Natural light floods the center, allowing for dramatic shadow play on the stark white surfaces. The lightness of the building stands in stark contrast with the village. It isn’t a stone, or wood, or masonry building. In a way, light is the building material light in many of Meier’s project (although he does also have a beige studio in New Harmony – one of the only times Meier’s projects have gone away from white cladding). Once you ascend the stair and see a video in the auditorium, the next step in the sequence of movement is to go to the roof. In my case, this took persuading one of the staff (all it took was saying I’m an architect and from Columbus). Here, you get your first glimpse of the village before you.

After the panoramic view showcasing your position in the village like a GPS, a long stair awaits leading you into New Harmony. Unfortunately, no amount of sweet talking could allow me access to the long stair. It would have completed the procession and hopefully the village will open the stairs again.

Movement and structure create layered space that challenges the visitor when moving through by constantly changing views. If you are ever in the Evansville area, drive the extra 45 minutes to take in the building, see New Harmony, and the Roofless Church by Philip Johnson. It’s worth it.

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Josh Mings

Architect and painter. Columbus, IN born, New Orleans educated, Chicago living and trying to leave the world better than I found it.