5 women accuse renowned architect Richard Meier of sexual harassment

Richard Meier with a model for a residential tower in Manhattan on March 8, 2018. In response to sexual allegations made against him, the architect announced a six-month leave as founder and managing partner of his firm.
Richard Meier with a model for a residential tower in Manhattan on March 8, 2018. In response to sexual allegations made against him, the architect announced a six-month leave as founder and managing partner of his firm. PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - In January, Richard Meier, the celebrated architect and Pritzker Prize winner who designed the Getty Center in Los Angeles, established a graduate scholarship at his alma mater, Cornell University's architecture school.

Intended to honour the 55th anniversary of his practice, the scholarship was designed to "recruit and retain the most talented women applicants".

But four women who have worked for Meier - and another who encountered him when he was working on the Getty - have described encounters when the architect, now 83, was, in fact, not good to women.

Two of the women have described incidents over the past 10 years in which they were sent to Meier's New York apartment, where he exposed himself, according to interviews with one of the women and several former employees of the firm.

A third woman said in an interview that Meier grabbed her underwear through her dress at a firm holiday party, and a fourth said he asked her to undress at his apartment so she could be photographed.

A fifth woman, who did not work for the firm, described an incident with Meier in Los Angeles in the 1980s, when she said she had to flee his home after he forcefully pulled her onto a bed.

Confronted with these allegations by The New York Times, Meier said he would take a six-month leave as founder and managing partner of his firm and issued this statement: "I am deeply troubled and embarrassed by the accounts of several women who were offended by my words and actions. While our recollections may differ, I sincerely apologise to anyone who was offended by my behaviour."

Stella Lee (left) and Alexis Zamlich, two of the women who came forward to say they were sexually harassed by Richard Meier. PHOTO: NYTIMES

"I am leaving the company in the hands of a dedicated and outstanding senior management team," he added, "which has spent the past three decades serving our clients and building our firm's success."

In 2009, during her first week as Meier's assistant, Laura Trimble Elbogen, 24, said that the architect, who was then 75, invited her to his apartment to celebrate her new job. When she arrived, she said, he offered her a glass of wine, showed her photographs of naked women he had taken and then asked her to undress.

She declined, left the apartment and said nothing because, she said, she was too intimidated and worried about holding her job.

"The incident felt shameful and embarrassing, even though I knew I hadn't done anything wrong," she said.

"I was worried about my co-workers and what would happen to their reputations if Meier's behavior was exposed. Speaking up didn't feel like an option." But she ultimately did reveal her experience to management, she said, after she was later laid off in what the company described to her as a downsizing.

Management also heard from Alexis Zamlich, a 22-year-old communications assistant, who reported that Meier exposed himself during her visit to his apartment that same year. Zamlich is said to have received a $150,000 legal settlement that required the firm to hold sexual harassment training.

Zamlich is barred by a confidentiality agreement from discussing the circumstances of her departure, but two people familiar with her complaint and the company's response - including the former chief operating officer - described the outlines of the settlement.

Zamlich, they said, had been asked to work at Meier's apartment every Friday to help with the architect's collages, which included images of female genitalia.

According to her account, after several weeks, Meier pulled down his pants in front of Zamlich, who quickly departed. The next day, she met with a few other women at the firm, reported what had happened and then told the partners.

Scott Johnson, who served as chief operating officer at the firm between 2003 and 2010, confirmed that he dealt with Zamlich's and Elbogen's complaints.

"We did everything we could to look into the claims and set up a strong sexual harassment policy and training," Johnson said, "which everyone, including Richard, participated in."

Richard Meier & Partners is considered one of the world's leading architecture firms, with prominent projects like the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and the Jubilee Church in Rome. Meier founded the firm in 1963, and in 1984 he became the youngest recipient of the Pritzker, architecture's highest honor.

"In his search for clarity," the Pritzker jury said in its citation, "and his experiments in balancing light, forms, and space, he has created works that are personal, vigorous, original."

In Meier's absence, the firm said on Tuesday that four associate partners would manage day-to-day operations of the New York headquarters: Vivian Lee, Reynolds Logan, Bernhard Karpf and Dukho Yeon. Michael Palladino, a partner and head of the company's Los Angeles office, will oversee all of the firm's operations and projects.

"We believe," Palladino said in a statement, "that women should feel comfortable and empowered in all workplaces - including ours."

Meier was long known to have been flirtatious, but the women's accounts paint a darker picture of a man who harassed women even as he signed on to popular feminist causes, like a petition to honor a woman, Denise Scott Brown, who many think was unfairly denied a share of the Pritzker won by her husband, Robert Venturi.

"He was always chasing women, and nothing stopped him," said Lisetta Koe, a former communications manager for the firm. "He made an attempt to come on to me, and I turned him down."

Stella Lee said in an interview that Koe warned her about Meier when she started working for him in 2000. "Ms Koe told me that if anything were to happen, I should write two copies of a letter detailing the incident, and to mail one to myself so that I have an unopened postmarked copy should I have to prove the veracity of the date and the details of the abuse," Lee recalled.

Having followed this advice, Lee said, she kept the letter until a few years ago. "I felt resigned to put this away and forget about it forever," she said.

What Lee said she detailed in writing was arriving at the architect's apartment to find him wearing only a blue terry cloth bathrobe that was open in front, exposing his penis.

"I was petrified when I saw that," Lee recalled. "I tried to channel my panic by focusing on the work, but over the course of the day he made several inappropriate suggestions of which a colleague had warned me - that I try taking a sauna in his bathroom, asking if I liked saunas."

She deflected and the next day told her supervisor that she no longer wanted to work alone with Meier at his home. She said her supervisor did not ask for any more details.

The supervisor told The Times that she did not recall the incident. Lee said she thought about leaving but had made friends and enjoyed the work.

"It was my first job out of college," she said, "and I wanted to follow through and see where it would lead me. I felt that it would have been extremely unfair if I were to leave because of his bad behavior."

Judi Shade Monk said she also had been warned about Meier's advances after starting work at the firm at the age of 26 in 2003. "A couple of people at different levels said, 'Just don't stay in the office late by yourself,'" she said.

Then at the office holiday party about two months later, she said, while guiding Monk over to meet two prominent architects Meier moved his hand from the small of her back down to her behind, where he played with her thong underwear through her dress.

"He started to roll my underwear around in his fingers," Monk recalled. "One of the more senior members saw it happen and asked if I was OK." Carol Vena-Mondt, a furniture designer who did not work for the architecture firm, said that she had an upsetting experience with Meier in the 1980s in Los Angeles, where he was designing the Getty Center, which is currently celebrating its 20th anniversary with events like last Saturday's Family Festival ("make a crown inspired by Richard Meier's design").

Meier invited Vena-Mondt to a dinner party at his residence, she said, but she turned out to be the only guest. After dessert, Vena-Mondt said that Meier forcefully tried to kiss her, and she went to leave. "He grabbed me from the back with both of his arms - and he's a big man - and started pulling me backward," Vena-Mondt said. "I twisted and pulled away from him, and he grabbed one of my arms and started dragging me down the hallway toward the bedroom. I was digging in my heels trying to lean back.

"He pushes me on the bed and lays down on top of me while I'm twisting and pushing him away and saying, 'No, no, no,'" she continued. "I'd never had anything like this happen. I was pretty aggressive about telling him no, but he wasn't listening." She said she finally broke free, ran to her car and locked all the doors. "Then he was right at the window: 'Come on, come back in,' she said. "I got the car started, got to the bottom of the long driveway, stopped and just sat there in my car crying and shaking." She didn't report the incident, she said, because she felt afraid. "I didn't want to offend him," Vena-Mondt, now 70, said. "That's the era I was raised in." In 2004, she finally told her friend Jim Isermann after they visited Meier's Atheneum in New Harmony, Indiana, on one of their architectural road trips.

"We put 7,000 miles on a rental, and we talked about everything," Isermann said in an interview. "I was horrified."