25 Year Award: The Atheneum
A Kinesthetic Experience in a White Pavilion
The Atheneum, in New Harmony, Indiana—designed by Richard Meier, FAIA—this year’s winner of the AIA 25 Year Award, stands strong and proud in the landscape. The building, which opened in 1979, serves as an entrance to the municipality—a town once dubbed the “Athens of the West”—and as a visitors’ center. The building sits between the banks of the Wabash River and the historic limits of the town. Developed in 1825 according to the utopian ideals of Welsh industrialist and social reformer Robert Owen, the town attracts 25,000 visitors annually. Since this is Meier’s second 25 Year Award (in 2000, he won the award for the Smith House in Darien, Connecticut), he now enjoys a distinction few have achieved.
Award nominator Peter Eisenman, FAIA, deems the building “one of Meier’s seminal works of architecture … a classic Meier design.” The exterior, porcelain-paneled and perfectly in accord with the character of Meier’s oeuvre, is entirely white. Regarding his use of white for the Atheneum, Meier remarked: “White is light, and it is movement. It reflects and refracts all the changes in color of the day in the best [possible] way. Just as white is about movement, so is the Atheneum.”
His intention becomes evident as soon as visitors enter the building, when they immediately encounter his “architectural promenade.” The circulation is based on a switchback ramp that takes visitors from the ground-floor lobby and an exhibition area detailing New Harmony’s history, up to the second and third floors, where more galleries, an auditorium, and a conference room are located. On the fourth floor, at the pinnacle of the structure, lies a rooftop terrace yielding a panoramic view. Here, one may gaze at the Indiana flatlands beyond New Harmony, which is spread out below the building. By descending two flights of external stairs connecting to an elongated ramp, visitors are brought directly to the threshold of the town.